Writing Advice: Setting as a Live Element

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Many have never heard of the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889, but the tragedy marks the worst disaster in 19th century US. It is believed that the dam contained 20 million tons of water before it gave way. The head of water then traveled 14 miles downriver, wiping out several smaller towns along the way, before dumping into Johnstown like a great and deadly mud puddle of shifting, swirling, swift-moving water. At it's greatest height through the narrow passage down to Johnstown, the water measured 35-40 feet in height. Ninety-nine families were wiped out by the unexpected deluge that caused 17 million dollars in property damage and the loss of 2,209 lives. The pile of debris at Johnstown's beautiful stone bridge covered 30 acres and burned for days as people lay trapped within.

Fascinating facts, sure, but how to take something so tragic, so devastating, and craft not just a story around it, but a LOVE story. The problem was that I wanted to stay true to the events. Without going into gory, terrible detail of everything that happened, I used sections of setting that showed the horror of the disaster, yet highlighted the emotions generated and heightened by the suddenness of the tragedy and the burning question of my hero and heroine, "Did Jack survive?"/"Did Alaina survive?".  

As a novelist, you want to make the setting itself a part of the story by creating conflict for the characters. The flood in Promise Brides (Promise of Tomorrow) did this, while also giving the reader a peek into the lives of other prominent characters who really were there following the flood--for example, Clara Barton's appearance post-flood put her group of nurses to their first real test on American soil.

As a teenager that was the one element I enjoyed most about reading historicals--learning about a different time and place. And I believe that modern readers enjoy historicals for that very same reason. It is up to us as writers to do this. Don't just tell about a place, show the place, give a taste for the surroundings and, if at all possible, make the setting itself a hurdle characters must leap in order to grow.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Johnstown Flood Museum in Johnstown, PA, I'm sure you will find the information and displays educational. For more information, visit their Website at http://www.jaha.org/FloodMuseum/history.html.

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