Setting, Resonance and Backstory

I’ve written before about setting and how it influences both the characters and the plot. But it also has a lot to do with resonance and helps to give roots to a character’s history, or backstory. In a conversation with fellow writers last weekend, I realised that the books which have resonated most with me all have settings to which I long to return, even if only in my mind. Wonderful places to dream of include the land of Narnia, the wild and windy cliffs of Du Maurier’s Cornwall and the magical castle of Hogwarts.

In a previous blog-post I wrote about why Romeo and Juliet works for me in its romantic, historical Italian setting, but not when set on the West Side of New York City in its rewritten version, West Side Story.

If I ever fly to New York, my first place of call will not be the area where West Side Story takes place, but rather Hobie’s antiques shop in The Goldfinch, or even the art gallery where that now famous painting was supposed to have been hanging when the bomb went off. Of course, that’s also because I have a thing for both antiques shops and art galleries, which is probably what drew me to that novel in the first place.

But since I can’t afford to go to New York, let’s return for the moment to the setting of Romeo and Juliet. If I hadn’t once upon a time journeyed to Verona in Italy to see the supposed house and balcony of Juliet, I would in all likelihood not have stopped for lunch on the road between Verona and Venice. This means that I would never have discovered the enchanting castle of Soave where I spent an afternoon marvelling at medieval weapons and chainmail shirts, a fresco of Dante on an obscure wall, and the panoramic view from the fire-step just below its high battlements. In short, if I had not harboured those romantic notions about Juliet’s house, I would have deprived myself of three of the most pivotal settings later used in my novel, Benicio’s Bequest.

Before I ever travelled to Australia, I had heard about Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street with its cafes and restaurants spilling across the pavements.


I had already decided that I wanted part of my next novel to be set in such a place, but first I had to see it for myself. Early notions of a cellar-like basement bar for my novel’s opening faded when I saw Lygon Street for the first time, and instead I set my fictional bar down a lane that led to a courtyard with a clock tower, beyond which was a hidden maze of alleys, private houses, and backyards of more double-storey buildings facing onto other streets behind and alongside.

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My new world was born. From those images I built my character’s nest in an apartment above the bar that he inherited from his father, up a little lane behind an Italian restaurant run by his friend Gino.

The house that my sister and brother-in-law were renting during that first visit to Melbourne also became the model for another setting, as did the ugly grey house shared by my niece and two housemates. By the time I returned to Melbourne for my second visit, both of these dwellings had other occupants and the members of my family had moved on to more permanent accommodation, but those houses are still firmly embedded in that novel.

What is it that draws us to a place and makes us want to recreate it in a fictional space in our minds? I don’t know, but the pull to those places is strong or we wouldn’t be tempted to use them. I often see myself as what I call a potential-holic. I am drawn to the potential I see in people or in places, just as I am drawn to the potential stories that I could create around situations that I imagine in numerous “What if” scenarios. I think it’s a leftover trait from childhood. Just as I once imagined a bogeyman under the bed or some scary creature of the night lurking in a semi-visible dressing-gown hanging on the back of my bedroom door, I see the world as alive with endless possibilities of hitherto untold stories.

My theatre technician friends laugh at me when I imagine the backstories behind certain things in the plays or musicals that I watch night after night as I operate lights or stage manage them. An entire history was imagined about the childhood of the dreadful Hannigan siblings in the musical Annie last year, and I can’t even remember now what it was based on. Likewise, the previous year saw me dreaming up stories about the odd assortment of criminals who arrive in the boarding house of a seemingly frail old lady who manages to outwit and outlive them all in The Ladykillers.

These are not stories that anybody in the audience would know or even think about. In fact, they may bear no resemblance to the original author’s own ideas, but for me – just as the actors do their own research and come up with their characters’ motivations – I like to find my own justification for everything that they do. It’s not only good practice for my writing, but it can be enormous fun too. When you’re lucky enough to work in a creative environment, something rubs off on you and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. And I suppose you could say that that’s my backstory.

9 thoughts on “Setting, Resonance and Backstory

  1. Terrific post! I’m trying to think if there are any places in particular that I’m drawn to that I’d like to people and write about. I can’t. Is that strange? The only thing I come up with is a general picture of a) the ocean, or b) a forest. I’m kind of scratching my head here thinking that’s odd.


    • That’s not odd at all. Writers all have different triggers. Think about your affinity with dragonflies. They speak to you in a way that places do to me. Oceans and forests must mean something to you too. The main picture on your blog is inside a forest, isn’t it?


      • Yep, it is a forest picture. I swear it lowers my blood pressure just to sit and look at it. It’s different than what you’re talking about — in that way. Seems you become motivated and creative. I really found this post to be enlightening. I always look forward to reading your blog.


  2. Thank you, Calen – it means a great deal to me to know that someone enjoys reading my musings. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment. I enjoy your blog too – full of interesting, thoughtful things, like an Aladdin’s cave of wonders. You made a comment somewhere on your blog (on the About page, maybe?) that you didn’t realise how difficult it would be to constantly find things to write about, and yet your posts flow easily and prolifically. Most enjoyable!


    • LOL That made me laugh. I’m really down to the bottom of the barrel. After TRYING the Poetry course and finding out I suck at it, I’ve been almost dreading coming to do anything. But thank you for your comment. Makes me feel better.


  3. Is there a single person who read the Goldfinch and did not google the painting? In my imagination, it lives at the Met although, if I am ever in Holland again, I will make time to see the original. Lovely post.


    • Thank you for your comment. I imagine that both galleries must have noticed an increase in visitors since the book became so popular. I too would love to see the original.


  4. I appreciate your point that great settings you’ve enjoyed are places you would enjoy spending time in yourself. I see the truth in that, and have experienced it myself, but do you also think setting can be made intentionally uncomfortable for characters and by extension readers, and that sometimes that can be the source of great conflict that produces great fiction? Just thinking. Thanks for the great post!


    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah. There’s probably something twisted in my brain, because I do like to take wonderful settings and make them uncomfortable for my characters. In Benicio’s Bequest – the book I wrote set in beautiful, romantic Italy – I orchestrated a fatal shooting in Juliet’s courtyard in the opening scene. Not very romantic at all! And extremely uncomfortable for the main character who spends the next few hours watching the dead man’s blood harden on her shoes and skirt while being interviewed by the police. Later in the same book, another of my favourite settings becomes a prison for the same heroine. Tied to a chair as a hostage amidst the sumptuous surroundings of a medieval museum, she is forced to endure the Bad Guy’s company while they wait for her boyfriend to bring him the article that will hopefully secure her release. How much more fun it is to place such scenes into great settings than to have them played out in squalor, I always say!

      Liked by 1 person

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