craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
Last week, we examined a few of the ways Lauren Wolk establishes the setting of Wolf Hollow without using straight descriptive paragraphs. (Read Part 1 here.) Today the discussion continues by looking at how she creates the spatial relationships among the various settings in the novel.
Using Repetition to Establish a Map
By Chapter 4, we understand the basic outlines of the place: the farm, the path, the fields, Cobb Hollow, Wolf Hollow, the school, the Glengarry place. If we read carefully, we can create a map of the place. In this chapter, though, Wolk reinforces the map, especially the spatial relations on Annabelle’s walk to school. She does this with a slow-fast strategy.
Over six pages, Wolk spreads out the action of walking to school. First, Annabelle’s brothers are waiting in the yard for her. Then “before we were even out of sight of the house, they had run well up the lane.” A few lines later “Up the lane and across the spent field at the top of the hill I walked alone.” She pauses at the hilltop: “Sometimes, from this hilltop, I would be surprised by a deer. One minute the fields below me would seem empty. Then next–there, a deer–nearly invisible against the plowed dirt.”
Over the next two pages, Annabelle tells a story of Toby, a wandering veteran that stays in the hollow, that establishes the top of the hill or the top of the lane as a place to meet Toby. After this pause in the narrative, Annabelle “headed down the slope and took the path into the woods” where she has a confrontation with Betty. In another two pages, after the confrontation, Annabelle narrates, “I gathered myself up and let the hill take me down toward the school. At the curved path, I glanced back.”
The journey to school–from the yard to the curve in the path–takes almost a full chapter. We experience the walk almost in slow motion.
In the following chapter, which takes place the next morning, Wolk reinforces the journey in a compressed sentence:
“When my brothers ran off ahead of me the next morning, I ran too and kept them close to me–and me close to them–up the lane and down the other side of the hill, across the fields, toward Wolf Hollow.”
A few lines later they reach the path to Wolf Hollow, and on the following page, they finish their journey: “At the first turn in the path I ushered them ahead and off they ran, and so did I, all the way down the hill and into the schoolhouse.”
From a narrative perspective, the expanded and compressed journeys make sense because Annabelle’s confrontation with Betty takes place in between. On the first day, Annabelle can be slow and take in her surroundings because she has nothing to fear. But the slow-fast descriptions doto double duty as they reinforce the spatial map of the setting.
Action: Vary the pace of your spatial settings. Repeat the spatial relationships to reinforce them.
Wolk uses more metaphors in her narrative, but they are always carefully placed, never gratuitous. In the first five chapters, Wolk uses only one striking metaphor in establishing the setting.
“I looked for him as I walked home that day, scanning the field that wrapped itself around the long, low hill like a nubby shawl.”
In this moment, Annabelle is pausing to search the landscape for Toby, and in that breath, there is time for a metaphor. Because the overall map has been established, we know where Annabelle is in space, and Wolk’s description can go deeper.
Action: Include a well-placed metaphor when there is space in the narrative. Cut metaphors that slow down the action of the story.
Description for Key Places
Wolk saves pure description for one key place in the first five chapters: Cobb Hollow. In Chapter 3, Annabelle tells of Toby’s living arrangements.
“We’d heard that Toby was squatting in an old smokehouse in Cobb Hollow down below the Glengarry place, along where we grew potatoes and corn. Nobody owned that smokehouse anymore, not since Silas Cobb had died and his old house burned up from a lightning strike. The smokehouse was set back away from the burned-out foundation of the house, mostly hidden in the trees and brush that had grown up around it. It was a snug little place made of stone and wood with a metal roof. . . . Except for the smell of meat and smoke that was still strong inside, it seemed a nice enough place for a man like Toby to live. And the old well at the nearby Cobb place–though nothing more now than a hole in the earth, like the Cobb house itself–still meant water worth drinking when the nearby crick froze up.”
The description positions the smokehouse in the established landscape, and gives a straight-ahead description of the smokehouse and surrounding area, establishing why it would be a decent place for Toby to live.
So why does Wolk call out this place with static description? Because the climactic moments of the novel take place here. Wolk draws special attention to this place in one context (Toby’s living environment) and will return to it again in another (the climax of the story).
Action: Save straightforward descriptions for key places, especially where the climax of the story is set.
In a few words, placed carefully, Wolk establishes a clear and vibrant world for her characters to inhabit. As you consider setting, be able to write a straightforward description of your setting, but in doling out information to readers, use Wolk’s techniques to keep the story moving while awakening the world in your readers’ imaginations.
Anne-Marie Strohman writes picture books and is working on a middle grade novel. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She lives in the mostly-sunny city of Sunnyvale with her husband and two children. She is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.