Tag Archives: Julia Fierro

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

7 Jun

Julia Fierro’s novel The Gypsy Moth Summer is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Some stories are blessed with great settings, such as shadowy mansions with secret gardens and skeletons in the closets. This is a description of many great novels and also a brand new one: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. One of the things she does so well in the book is play up this great location. But it’s not enough to make a mansion very very shadowy and its gardens very very secret. A novel must also personalize the setting so that its importance becomes acutely attached to one character in particular. That attachment is often what will drive the story forward, and it’s the case in The Gypsy Moth Summer.

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows Leslie Day Marshall as she returns to her home off the coast of Long Island, bringing her African-American husband, Jules, and their children. Leslie’s the daughter of the most prominent family on an island full of them, and so we’re quickly introduced to their estate, as seen through the eyes of Jules:

He had no language to describe the Castle then. It took a few days for the archaic terms he had studied in required architectural courses at Harvard to return to him. Turrets and finials and gables. But studying glossy photos in a textbook was nothing like the real thing. Of course Leslie’s parents had named it The Castle. It was the stuff of fairy tales, a white marble palace rising out of the trees, built to protect a royal clan from marauding villagers, raping and pillaging hordes. From war. From the undesirables—what his pops had called the kids in their hood who spent their days slinging dope, lounging on stoops like the sun had melted them there.

These are the details that are supposed to impress pretty much any reader. It’s literally a castle, but it’s also something out of a fairy tale. The house is not just big and fancy; it’s the stuff of legend. A couple of paragraphs later, we learn that the doors weigh a ton each and also that the house is a literal copy of a French castle and resort.

But you can also see the novel beginning to personalize it, with the way that Jules connects the word undesirables to his own background. The novel continues on in that direction:

If there had been a chance left for him to hate the island, to refuse Leslie’s and Brooks’s demands that they move, it died when Jules entered the maze that led to the Castle’s gardens. Leslie, not one to keep anything under wraps, had managed to keep it a surprise, and as Jules ran into the maze, ignoring Leslie’s cries, “Wait, you’ll get lose! You need the directions!” there was nothing he wanted more than to lose himself between the tall (at least eight or nine feet, he guessed) fragrant corridors. It was his personal amusement park—the funny mirror glass replaced with living, breathing, CO2-releasing walls.

We later learn that even the word fragrant is personal. The corridors are formed from boxwood, which “smelled like cat piss,” a scent that Jules is unusual in loving.

This personal connection is important because it will give Jules a reason to stay when things go south—as they inevitably will. It’s a bit like the horror movies, where you scream, “Get out of there,” but the characters never leave. In this novel, Fierro has created an intense attachment that will keep Jules in the Castle, even after he should have gotten out of there.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make setting striking to all readers but personal to one character, using The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Name your setting. Fierro names hers “The Castle.” Your name doesn’t actually need to appear in the story or be used by the characters, but it will help define the setting: the town, the farm, the yard, the school. When you’re able to think of the setting as a single entity or place, it’s easier to begin to give it a sensibility—a mood.
  2. Describe the setting in terms from some other story. All books are read in the context of other books that came before them. It’s why we can think in terms of genres and why a castle off the coast of Long Island is more than simply a great big house. Ezra Pound said to make it to new, and that’s all well and good, but you should also take advantage of the literary traditions that have shaped your reader. If you’ve got a castle, make it more than a big house. So, find some counterpart for your setting in another story—not just old ones like fairy tales but anything people might be familiar with. For example, a small house could be described in terms appropriate to the submarine in Das Boot. As soon as you tap into the connotations and memories that readers have retained from that other story, your own setting takes on a life that is, to some extent, larger than the page its written on.
  3. Connect the setting so one particular character. This can be a literal connection (I, too, once lived in a castle). Or it can be primarily in the character’s head, as it is with Jules, who connects what the castle seems to keep out with the undesirables of his own youth. This connection doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s simply a bridge to connect setting and character beyond mere presence (I’m in a castle). Try using this basic phrase: “The place reminded him/her/me of ____.”
  4. Deepen the connection. Jules sees the garden, and even without knowing much about him, we can already sense that the guy’s got a serious thing for nature and landscaping. So, give your character an “Oh my god” moment, as in “Oh, my god, did you see this ___?” The ____ should be something more remarkable to that character than to the others around him or her. Then, keep going. Focus on some particular aspect of the ____ (like the boxwoods) and make the character respond to it differently than the other characters. This might seem forced at first, but play with it. Dig into the idiosyncrasies of your character or the things in his/her background not shared by anyone else—or simply the weird stuff he or she likes. Use those traits to make the connection with the place intensely personal to that character.

The goal is to set up plot points later in the story by strengthening the connection between one particular character and the story’s setting.

Good luck.

How to Create Structure with Teasers

1 Sep
Julia Fierro's debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was called "comically energetic" by The New Yorker.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was called “comically energetic” by The New Yorker.

I often argue that, from a craft perspective, there is almost no difference between literary and genre fiction. The novels may be pointing their readers toward different things (character development versus plot, for instance, though that’s mostly a false distinction), but the strategies used to direct the readers are often the same. For example, genre books often use plot spoilers to create structure; if we know someone will end up dangling from a clock tower, we’ll read to find out how it happened. This same strategy is also used by literary writers. The content may be different (domestic strife rather than terrorist plot, though, again, that’s an oversimplification), but the technique is the same.

A good example of this is Julia Fierro’s novel Cutting Teeth. It’s a literary novel that was published last year to much acclaim, and you can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a mommy group (for the non-parents: moms with young children who meet for playdates) who decides to vacation together with their families over Labor Day weekend. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different mom, which includes the one dad in the group. His first chapter begins this way:

It had been over a year since Rip first began calling himself a mommy.

The sentence suggests a question: why does Rip call himself a mommy? There are several possibilities, and even if you can guess his rationale, that knowledge doesn’t give a complete answer to the question. We still want to know how he came to this decision. But the chapter doesn’t give the answer quickly. Instead, it treats the statement as a kind of flag in the sand and then backs up in time. We know where we’re headed (why he calls himself a mommy), and so we’re willing to read backstory.

But the structure of the chapter doesn’t simply come from backstory. Yes, we find out that Rip stays home with his son while his wife works and that, though he pays lip service to the difficulties posed by full-time parenting, in truth, “it is the best life Rip can imagine.” But what’s more important, and what drives the chapter forward, is the consequence of this backstory. This is the life that Rip wants. He does not want to go back to his life pre-child or act like a “dad”:

They didn’t understand he couldn’t befriend just any guy. He wasn’t just any dad. He felt most comfortable with the mommies because, in the last four years, he had become a mommy.

So, the chapter opens with a provocative statement, one that we want to know more about, but before it returns to the statement, the chapter reveals why the statement matters. It shows us the stakes for this question of identity. The rest of the chapter, then, puts Rip in situations that challenge his identity as a mommy, or at least make it uncomfortable for him. We keep reading because we know how much that identity means to him.

In short, the opening statement creates space for not just backstory but an explanation for the characters’ personal stakes in the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use a teaser to create structure using Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Find something provocative about a character. It can be a question of identity, with the character identifying as something that might surprise others (I’m a guy, but I’m a mommy). It can also be a question of desire (I want this thing that people think I shouldn’t want). Or, it can be a question of intent (I intend to do this thing that people will not expect). If you find that your character doesn’t have a provocative identity, desire, or intent, your story may not have the oompfh to keep going. Fiction needs something amiss.
  2. State the provocative thing in a sentence. Be succinct. You’re intentionally trying to pique the reader’s interest.
  3. Back up. Now that you’ve created suspense and interest, step back and explain how the character arrived at that identity, desire, or intent. This means backstory. A useful way to begin is with a sentence similar to Fierro’s next sentence: “In the beginning, it had been a joke.” Try that opening: In the beginning… Or this: It had not always been this way. In short, bring the reader up to speed about the narrative, the sequence of events, that led to that statement being true.
  4. Explain why the statement matters. Fierro suggests the difficulty that Rip will have if his role as “mommy” disappears. He’ll be adrift. So, he develops a plan to convince his wife to have another baby. This is an effective strategy. Present the possibility that the character won’t get what she wants: the identity will be revoked or taken away, the desire will be unfulfilled, or the intent will not be achieved. If the character is unsatisfied, then what? If we know why it matters to the character, it will matter to us and we’ll keep reading as the story returns to the statement and moves forward into a plot that tests whatever statement you’ve written.

Good luck.

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