craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
When the title of the book is the name of the place it’s set, you know setting is going to be important, as is the case in Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow. Though the plot is gripping and the characters strong (as LA Biscay explored in her post), the setting is more than a backdrop. The layout of the farm, the roads, the hillside by the school–even the earth that becomes crucial to the climax of the story–affect and develop the story. So how does Wolk create such an effective setting?
The answer: very sparingly.
I expected to find lots of description. And to be able to tell you my favorite tidbit about writing descriptions (that you should think spatially and move around the space logically–wide angle zooming in, or sweeping from left to right or top to bottom). But Wolk includes very few paragraphs of description. Instead, she sneaks setting into the narrative.
In this post and next week’s post, I’ll explore the ways Wolk establishes her setting, in particular the outdoor spaces.
The prologue of Wolf Hollow is about Annabelle’s emotional landscape. But two brief moments give us a taste of where the story is set. She says she changes “because of a dark-hearted girl who came to our hills” and acknowledges that “it simply would not do to hide in the barn with a book and an apple.” We know that she lives on a farm in a hilly area.
In Chapter 1, Wolk tells more about the lay of the land subtly, through Annabelle’s story of her missing bank. She says that after she had broken her bank, “I had buried the pieces of broken china beyond the kitchen garden” and hidden the wrapped coins “in a winter boot under my bed.” She determines that she will not give a prized silver dollar “to the terrible girl waiting on the path that led into Wolf Hollow.” These three bits of information are in close proximity, and we find out that there is a kitchen garden, that winter is not yet here but might come soon, and that the farm is outside Wolf Hollow.
These moments are incidental to the storyline, but clearly establish the outlines of Annabelle’s physical world.
Action: Include setting as incidental details in the context of the narrative, especially to establish the broad outlines of your character’s physical world.
Setting through Action
The moment where Annabelle situates Betty Glengarry on the “path that led into Wolf Hollow” allows for a graceful transition into one of the most important settings: the actual path. But Wolk doesn’t describe the types of trees or the quality of dirt on the path. She establishes the setting through action.
“Every day, to get to school, I walked with my brothers–Henry, who was nine, and James, who was seven–down into Wolf Hollow and then back up out of it again to return home.”
Annabelle describes her routine and route–a movement down into the hollow and back out. In the course of the novel, she will tread this path many times, and this first description situates the farm in relation to the school and establishes it as a place of movement–movement that will be stopped at various points by Betty Glengarry’s cruelty.
This section of the story moves from the walk to school into the school itself, and then returns to the path. We find out it is a wooded area through Betty’s threats to younger children. Annabelle reports that “she told them that if they tattled to their parents, she would follow them through the woods after school.” And just a paragraph later, Annabelle tells of “that day in Wolf Hollow when Betty stepped out from behind a tree and stood in the path ahead of me.”
Wolk establishes the setting slowly–working in broad outlines (the farm, the path, the school) and then filling in details (the path is wooded). These descriptions are included in action–walking, stepping out, threatening, following.
Action: Include setting elements in actions. Consciously establish a map for readers, situating important settings in relation to each other.
Catalogs (a tricky prospect)
At times, Wolk leaves the spatial relationships up to the reader. Chapter 1 is set in Annabelle’s bedroom, and Wolk’s setting requires more of the reader’s imagination than a typical description:
“[My mother] was scrubbing down the baseboards in my bedroom while I put away my summer clothes. She must have noticed that the bank was missing because there was little else in my small room beyond the furniture itself and the widows, a comb and a brush and a book beside my bed.”
Instead of creating a sweeping vision of her bedroom, she lists the items it contains. We must imagine how all the pieces of the room fit together, and that requirement fits with Wolk’s larger purpose of revealing Annabelle’s sparse life.
Later in the story, Annabelle describes her house in another catalog. Note that on page 8, Annabelle says she was “called upon to tell my catalog of lies.” The idea of a catalog in this moment makes other catalog moments fit in seamlessly. This technique only works because Wolk has created a precedent for lists.
When Betty accuses Annabelle of being rich, she catalogs all the things that might argue for or against Betty’s perception:
“ . . . our house was, in fact, big enough for the three generations that now lived there, albeit cheek by jowl. We had running water. A couple of years earlier, Mr. Roosevelt had sent us the electric, and we’d had the wherewithal to wire up the house. We had a telephone mounted on our sitting room wall, which we still regarded as something of a miracle. . . . But most amazing of all was the indoor privy, which my parents had recently installed, now that my grandparents were old enough to deserve it. But we were not rich.”
Annabelle is reasoning with herself here, and through her reasoning, we get a description of pieces of her house and a sense of what other folks’ houses must be like–no electricity, no phone, outhouses. This brief list establishes not only what Annabelle’s house is like, but also what the economic conditions in her region are.
Done well, this technique can do a lot in a few words. Done poorly, it can reek of inexperience. Experiment, but proceed with caution.
Action: Experiment with establishing setting through a list of items. Make your list do double duty–establish a socio-economic status for your character, or define other characters’ environments in contrast. Or be creative in introducing setting in a way that fits seamlessly with a character’s perspective on the world. Be careful with these creative methods–there must be a reason for unconventional ways of establishing setting.
In Part 2 of this post, we’ll examine the spatial relationships between the settings.
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.