Saturday, April 14, 2018

Setting in Fiction

Setting is where a story take place.

It can include the historical period, what the room looks like, or the town, or the outdoor environment. It is not static, but a living breathing quality of literature.

Questions to ask:
  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • What does it contribute to the story?
  • How does the writer make the setting essential to the action and the meaning of the story?

Setting Examples from two works of fiction. 
Notice the two different styles, and apply this to your reading for this week, in your reading response.

1. Maximalist Setting

Includes: Overflowing abundance of information and detail. Can seem gratuitous and excessive or richly evocative.

Work of fiction: Grand Ambition, novel by Lisa Michaels

Topic: Married couple Glen and Bessie embark on the first ever 1928 rapids boat trip down the Grand Canyon

“[Bessie] sat n the bare box springs in the center of the boat, while Glen stood on a cross plank, working the long sweeps. They were plowing through a caramel river—thick, with a greasy sheen. It ran flat and smooth to the banks, which were bare and just high enough to block the views on either side. A deep ditch, really. A canal. Within it, the boat looked rather substantial: a flat-bottomed barge the size of a peddler’s wagon, piled with supplies. A box stove, a .30-30 rifle, two cartons of bullets, crates of canned peaches and tomatoes and beans, rope and blankets. Bessie kept her things wrapped in oilskin: a box camera, twenty-seven dollars in a beaded purse—a sentimental object, frivolous for any occasion ahead—pencils, charcoal, a sketchbook, and blank diary.”


  • The river is greasy.
  • Practicality contrasts with frivolous purse.
  • Some items just useful enough to make them plausible without sentimental.
  • Every sentence provides key information.
  • The river, boat, and objects in the boat are almost characters too.
  • The river is antagonist, the boat is a protector.

2. Minimalist Setting

Includes: Just enough detail to give an impression.

Work of fiction: “Thailand” short story from the book “Thailand” by Haruki Murakami, 2000

“Together, they passed through Bangkok’s vulgar, noisy, polluted streets. The traffic crawled along, people cursed each other, and the sound of car horns tore through the atmosphere like an air-raid siren. Plus, there were elephants lumbering down the street—and not just one or two of them. What were elephants doing in a city like this? she asked Nimit.
‘Their owners bring them from the country,’ he explained. ‘They used to use them for logging, but there was not enough work for them to survive that way. They brought their animals to the city to make money doing tricks for tourists. Now there are far too many elephants here, and that makes things very difficult for the city people. Sometimes an elephant will panic and run amok. Just the other day, a great many automobiles were damaged that way. The police try to put a stop to it, of course, but they cannot confiscate the elephants from their keepers. There would be no place to put them if they did, and the cost of feeding them would be enormous. All they can do is leave them alone.’”

What Murakami does:

  • Only three sentences of description, and short ones.
  • Just enough to give an impression of the daily chaos of the streets and to introduce elephants so the character Nimit can tell us about their history.
  • Images of elephants resonates with themes of displacement, loneliness, and loss that runs through the story.
  • Description and details play a minor role.
  • Fable: meaning is conveyed almost entirely through action and dialogue.

When setting works well:
Character’s attitudes are as important as detail, and are intertwined.
Tone can equal a feeling in a good setting.
Desire and longing can be shown in the descriptive details.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Never Forget

Never forget the terrible speed of birds
skirting on top of green water
how they dip, then come out

unscathed. Never forget
their approach, afternoon shadows
onward rolling of clouds,

earth’s rotation unseen
through sunglasses,
imperceptible leaves falling from

redwoods standing the length of
the river. Never forget her
breath, finally stopped.

When they say “peace,” this is what they mean—
face pale like slab of stone, lips slipping
apart, forehead warm to the touch.

To black this out—
how it happened and memory of it
two separate experiences blended into one—

would be to deny her existence. A daughter once,
a daughter now, even with her
absence. Shadows from branches

will always cast across the water,
whether she is there
or not.

Open Season

My mother’s hand the last morning as I sit alone with her—
already gone, though forehead still warm, petunias

outside the window, orange pink, bruised
as those on the narrow path once outside our home.

Light clings like mud to her flaking skin,
revealing fine cuts near her mouth,

“like paper,” they said as if clearing it with us
a technical problem that could be solved somehow.

Threads of hair I brush off her face,
dark flooded eyes ignore all warnings,

mouth once an open smile now hollow cheeks
fashioning a skull, despite how she knew everything.

I cannot understand how this brain interruption
can happen— where is the dividing line—

her childhood, the past
her adulthood, the past

old age, the past. Her eyes
coals over an open fire

what she carries within
now fills this room.

Friday, March 10, 2017


My mother recited the ventricles of the heart,
anatomy learned in undergrad biology
sitting in her wheelchair—

lay alone all those nights
room shared with a screaming woman
imposed structure not suitable.

How is my own survival now different than hers
also at the mercy of those unsuited to their professions
like coyotes they stumble in a stink

guiding their charges across a desert.
In the nursing home, her diaper waiting half an hour for the R.A.
where chair, bed, lights, even air flow were determined,

TV cocked at an angle for a woman
who would never have one in her own bedroom,
who would hum to the classical station.

Her brain exploded,
ribbon torn—
and my mother, who loved form—

how could she form words,
electrical impulses bleating
in what was left of her brain.

Yet letters on a page, her handwriting was almost perfect
years of calligraphy instilled.
Survival is studied by scientists

but goes beyond adjustment, speed,
and adrenaline,
beyond fitting pegs in holes.

Saying Goodbye to Al Hackett

The memorial for family friend Al Hackett this past Saturday, December 3rd, took place at the Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley. As I sat in the row behind the Hackett kids and their mother Dorothy, I thought about how the event was meant for the family. Winston and Marty were tearful. Of course, for me, it brings back memories of losing my father (Sol Benjamin) suddenly in December 1999. And more recently, last year, my Mother, Thelma. So when I weep, it is not only for Al, but the loss of my parents.

Al was as much the fabric of my childhood as my father. They came from different places. Al from Texas, my father from Brooklyn, Al’s father a slave and my father’s father escaping the pogroms as a Russian Jew. When they came of age as young men, they fought for our country-- Al overseas in the Buffalo Soldiers, my father as an aircraft engineer stationed in North Carolina. And because of the war and the G.I. Bill, they both ended up in college, part of their moral compass, Al as a teacher, my father a social worker. Because there was such a thing as a moral compass then, as much as lapels, hats, sport jackets, and pipes—the fabric of men in our society at the time.

Growing up in a multi-cultural neighborhood as I did in Richmond in the 1960s was my normal. The street my family lived on -- Castilla Avenue-- was separated by an alleyway to the street where the Hackett family lived. l spent so much time in that house, as I did with other friends on those blocks, typical for that time. No play dates, just running into each other’s houses. But now I see that neighborhood as a unique environment. People of different ethnicities and origins. Dorothy Hackett pointed out the other day that both blue collar and white collar professions shared the neighborhood, as she alluded to diversity as much as people coming together to build a community. Al and Dorothy and my parents were dedicated to a world their own parents had survived, where they fought for freedoms.

Today, I see the Hacketts fairly regularly. I have always felt comfortable and at home with them. They are my family. At the memorial, what struck me was that other people echoed that feeling. Their family too.

Dear Al, I have been mourning your death, even as I know that at the end you were in discomfort, that you outlived your body and mind, not able to finally speak. You finally passed, the day after receiving your eldest daughter Tish who had come from Michigan to see you. You waited until after your 62nd wedding anniversary. I remember your 50th in 2005, and how you sang to Dorothy in your beautiful tenor voice. And that's how I think of you— at home, playing the piano and singing a jazz standard. Gentle, human, warm, funny, a long-winded story-teller. Your smile welcoming me into your home, saying "Hi, sweet."