My friend and colleague, Holly Robinson, author of Folly Cove (Penguin, 2016) and other engaging novels, shares a guest post about why place and setting matters in novels.
“Sparkles with warmth and wit.”—Booklist
Maybe it’s because I love to travel, but I believe setting matters in novels as much as the plot and characters. What would Harry Potter novels be without Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade? Would we be so enthralled by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth without the descriptions of those lavish country houses? Could Lord of the Flies take place anywhere other than a lush tropical island?
When I wrote my newest novel, Folly Cove, I wanted the setting to be an historic New England inn like the one my grandmother worked in for many years. What would it be like, I wondered, to bring together three sisters whose legacy is that inn? What if that reunion happened at a time when each woman is in crisis, causing dark secrets to come tumbling out of family closets? It would be my own version of an island, where the inhabitants had no choice but to interact with each other.
Okay, I was going to write about an inn. Now, where should I put it?
For the larger setting, I wanted something claustrophobic, a beautiful but isolated place, so the clashes between the sisters would feel even more inevitable and inescapable. I chose to set the inn—and the book—at Folly Cove, a real place in the town of Rockport on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Cape Ann is a peninsula that extends northeast from the Massachusetts mainland; it’s only about forty miles from Boston, but feels much farther because you have to travel on such narrow, winding roads to get there.
I loved Folly Cove’s fascinating history. For example, I was intrigued by the Folly Cove Designers, a collective of women artists led by Virginia Lee Burton (an illustrator and author of many children’s books, including Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel ). Setting the inn there also meant it was close to Dogtown and Halibut Point. These are two of my favorite places on Cape Ann and lend themselves well to dramatic descriptions that ramp up emotions in the novel.
Dogtown, for instance, is one of the most beautiful but creepiest places I’ve ever hiked with my dog, a densely wooded area with innumerable trails and the remains of stone cellar holes dug by 17th-century settlers. Once fishing proved more profitable than farming, most of the men moved to coastal areas, while widows of fishermen and soldiers who fought in the War of 1812 remained and kept dogs for protection. The dogs eventually became feral, giving the land its name.
Adding to the weird and wonderful nature of Dogtown is that some of the last women living there were rumored to be practicing witches. Plus, during the Depression, a millionaire named Roger Babson paid unemployed stone cutters to carve inspirational sayings on dozens of giant boulders around Dogtown, like, “Never Try, Never Win.” You can still see those today.
There are boulders as big as houses in those woods, so it’s no wonder granite quarrying was a profitable business in Rockport through the 19th century. Millions of granite paving stones were used in construction in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities. You can see samples of huge granite blocks at Halibut Point—one of the places where my characters go to work out whether they can ever forgive each other for the secrets they’ve held through the years.
The next time you read a novel, think about what the setting contributes to the plot and what might change if the author had chosen a different place for the action. You may discover surprising new insights in the books you read, simply by considering the setting.
About the author:
Holly Robinson is the author of the novels Chance Harbor, Haven Lake, Beach Plum Island, The Wishing Hill, Sleeping Tigers, and a memoir, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter. She is an NPR commentator and a journalist whose work appears in publications such as the Huffington Post, More, Parents, Publishers Weekly, and Redbook.