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Question of the Week: Setting

By Posted on 45 2 m read 2.2K views

Before I get to the question of the week, I want to show you Lance’s brilliant new digs.


Okay, here’s your question: For all of you writers, artists, photographers, and people captured by a certain place on the map, would you tell me about the setting that keeps cropping up in your work?

And unrelated, but I’m just curious: Favorite Beatle. And favorite Beatles’ song. (Kenny, if you don’t play today, I’ll think you don’t love me.)


Wednesday, you’ll meet Jim Tomlinson, whose book THINGS KEPT, THINGS LEFT BEHIND features stories set in Kentucky and characters who find themselves at crossroads in their lives – noticing, for example, that a relationship is over, that it’s time to say goodbye to the past, or that they are not living the lives they’ve dreamed for themselves.

This is from the back cover: Jim Tomlinson’s characters each face the desire to reclaim dreams left behind, along with something of the dreamer that was also lost.

I could say things like this about Jim:

His work has (or will soon) appear in: Five Points, Shenandoah Review, The Potomac Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. He’s received the following awards: 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award, 2006 Walter E. Dakin Fellowship (Sewanee Writers Conference), teaching fellowship at 2006 Wesleyan Writers Conference, 2005 Nougat Magazine Fiction Grand Prize, 2004 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, 2003 Runciple Spoon Fiction Award (Indiana University Writers Conference).

But here’s what matters more:

Jim Tomlinson is one of those rare writers who is as interested in other people’s projects and success as he is in his own. He reads his friends’ books and blogs and rough drafts. He encourages them when they want to give up. And he shares his rejection letters with humility and humor.

So, Wednesday, when you hear him talk about his book, remember he’s that kind of a writer.

He’s a hiker, a reader, a shameless eavesdropper. He once played center and linebacker on a high school football team that won every game for four years, thirty-three consecutive games. (And he did it wearing the same jersey number as my Joey Porter!) He leaps Lego buildings in a single bound (given a running start), deciphers most notes scribbled to himself, sings show tunes in the shower, collects vintage vinyl LPs, clutter and dust!

Stop by Wednesday to meet Jim and say hello.

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What do you think?

  • Mark Bastable
    November 6, 2006


    London – not a staggering choice, perhaps, but it’s my hometown. From a creative point of view, the terrific thing about London is that it’s anyplace. Whereas most cities are defined by a prevalent attribute – New York’s hustle, Amsterdam’s vibe, the self-consciousness of Paris, the self-confidence of Vegas – London is too diverse, too incoherent a city to lend itself to such pat characterisation. Many writers use London in their work, but there’s no broad agreement about how it should be portrayed. Everyone can make London in their own image.

    The Beatles

    Probably “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Or, from the moptop period, “Yes It Is”. Or, for sheer melody, “Martha My Dear”.
    Or, just because it’s so relentless “I Want You/She’s So Heavy.” Or that bit in the medley on Abbey Road where
    Paul sings “Oh, that magic feeling – nowhere to go.” Then again it’s very difficult not to give the vote to the
    completely unprecedented musical structure of “I Am The Walrus.”

    But I think I’lll settle for “Good Morning”.

    As to which Beatle, Paul – because he’s so maligned by people who have very good arguments for saying John.

  • Aimee
    November 6, 2006

    I always end up writing about Ann Arbor Michigan. I grew up about 5 minutes away and went to college there. I think I just write what I know.

    My favorite Beetle is Ringo because he’s so ugly he’s cute. My favorite song is Yesterday, because oddly enough it was the only song that would help my son fall asleep when he was two. Depressing as it is, he reacted like it was a lullaby.

  • mikel k poet
    November 6, 2006

    john lennon–working class hero

    My small apartment where I’m raising two kids and a dog and a cat are raising me.

  • Amy Kiger-Williams
    November 6, 2006

    I tend to write about places where I lived as a kid (northern Indiana and Lancaster, PA). But right now I’m knee-deep in an apple orchard in the Hudson Valley.

    Favorite Beatle: George or John, depending on the day.

    Favorite Beatle Song: “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” or “Sexy Sadie,” also depending on the day.

  • Lance Reynald
    November 6, 2006

    again, childhood home and some travels. Dc will always be a part of me and my writing. but the decadent side of it. NYC because it is a city that inspires my imagination, all the stories written on the faces of the people and the buildings, the opportunity to turn a different corner and change your life being endless…and I could go on with this list as I’ve tried to be the gypsy from time to time…but those stay the same.

    now you’re gonna kill me on this, though I’m certain the Beatles have a few fans and have made great contributions to music and world affairs… I don’t have a favorite song from them and were I to choose a favorite member I might say Lennon (because of Yoko and his willingness to tell everyone to f-off and respect the lil lady) Shotty reasoning I know, but the guy was certainly his own person…I respect that.

    Now the Stones… Keith and “sympathy for the devil”.

  • Betsy
    November 6, 2006

    Chicago! My adopted home that I love so much. But – I suspect NY will always continue to make appearances since it had much to do with the formation of my Chicago-loving self.
    Favorite Beatle: Paul! Cuz he’s the cute one! Someone had to say it!
    Favorite Song: Hard to pick one but I do love Norwegian Wood.

  • Julie Ann Shapiro
    November 6, 2006

    The sand, the clouds, running, the sound of waves. I live by the beach.

  • David Niall Wilson
    November 6, 2006

    Recently, the setting that has recurred is North Carolina – the rural NC near the Great Dismal Swamp. I’ve set a number of recent stories there, in a fictional town called Old Mill, which is based on my own current hometown, Hertford, NC. I’ve also used the area in a recent novel about a hurricane, and am using it for the novel I’m currently writing…the swamp rules.

    Beatles…odd, I may be one of the only folks on the planet who never considered them a big deal. I was more a fan of their happy catchy pop days, so I guess “Paperback Writer,” because it always makes me smile.


  • Robin Slick
    November 6, 2006

    Philadelphia and New York City. I write about what I know and I’m a big city girl.

    Favorite Beatle: John. He’s the closest thing to a hero I’ve ever had. My blog is named for his brilliant book of prose poetry In His Own Write.

    But favorite Beatle song comes courtesy of my second favorite Beatle, George. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. But my favorite version is on the Beatles Anthology 3 where it contains the additional verse…and if anyone wants to know the story behind that, email me. Ha.

    Funny, Mikel – Working Class Hero is my all-time favorite Lennon song and I was going to mention it and see you beat me to it. It’s my freaking anthem.

  • Robin Slick
    November 6, 2006

    P.S. Lance, your new digs are fabulous! One of the best websites I’ve seen, actually.

    And look who is back – the mysterious David Niall Wilson.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 6, 2006

    Mark – It’s so nice to see you here!

    Aimee – Isn’t it funny what settles our kids? I used to sing all the tragic Les Mis songs to my boys as lullabies.

    Mikel K – I like that the small apartment is your sense of place. Very intriguing.

    Amy – I’d love to be knee-deep in an apple orchard.

    Lance – I didn’t play a lot of Beatles when I was a kid (maybe it’s our DC heritage? Not enough cow bells and percussion?) But when my kids were young and we tried “kid music,” I thought I was going to go insane. So The Beatles (and Us3’s Hand on the Torch) became the most popular tunes.

    Betsy – I’m glad you said it.

    Julie – Isn’t it funny? I live 5 minutes from the beach and I never even remember it. I go maybe once or twice a year–always when guests come to town.

    David – What a great setting – very Scooby Doo of you!

    Robin – Yes, I’m supposed to be writing right now. I just had to pop in and see what you said about John.

    My favorite is George because whenever there’s a Beatles song I really like, I ask, “Who wrote this one?” and the answer is usually “George.”

    My favorite song is “Here Comes the Sun.” I love “Something in the Way She Moves.” I love “Blackbird.” “Don’t Let Me Down.”

    Mr. Henderson likes Ringo “by far and away.” This is about his character and his humor and humility.

    I’ll talk about setting on Friday. Hint: lotso rattlesnakes.

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    November 6, 2006

    Like Mark, London keeps cropping up in my writing – it’s the setting of three of my novels to date – but unlike Mark, I only spent eight days there in 1993.

    If this were the Stones it’d be easier – I’ve even washed Keith’s windows! – but I’ll go with Paul. I used to think he was a wanker but now I admire/feel sorry for him. Song: today I’ll take “Let It Be,” because it’s been on my mind lately, but feel free to ask me again tomorrow.

  • MOM
    November 6, 2006

    Regarding a Beatles song, I immediately picked my favorite, “MacArthur Park (is melting in the rain)” only to discover it is NOT a Beatles song but was written by Jim Webb and recorded by Richard Harris. It always makes me cry, and I can change the metaphor to fit almost any loss. MOM

  • Susan Henderson
    November 6, 2006

    Lauren – Bach-Boy just taught himself to play that song!

    Mom – I remember you playing that one over and over. That record had the blue cover with the guy in the bandana.

    (I was about to tease my mom about how, whenever she liked a song, she’d play it over and over and over and over. And then I realized I’ve had the same CD in the car for two weeks, and whenever the boys buckle up, Ritchie’s playing his hurdy-gurdy.)

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    November 6, 2006

    I’m a London lover also, but England herself is the setting for two of my historic novels set centuries apart. Most of my contemporary writing drifts to Orange County, CA; the Newport Beach of my childhood and Laguna Beach of my young adulthood. Newport was a sleepy seaside surftown back then, not the sparkly playground of multi-millionaires. Laguna Beach has always been and still is the artistic center of Orange County, with character, creativity, and panache that has resisted the money-blow that drives Orange County.

  • Gail Siegel
    November 6, 2006

    Settings: Chicago (downtown), Chicago (rogers park), Chicago (train lines), Lake Michigan, Chicago (lincoln park), the north woods, Chicago (Field Museum), Lake Michigan, Chicago, Chicago, Michigan.

    Beatles: Two of Us.
    Growing up: McCartney
    As an adult: Lennon

  • Jonathan Evison
    November 6, 2006

    … favorite beatle: paul… i think george martin would probably say the same . . .paul was the innovator, and clearly the band leader from rubber soul forward . . .and let’s not forget who turned john onto the avant garde art scene and introduced him to yoko in the first place . . .john was the bigger persona, no doubt, and the better lyricist . . . but innovation is what seperates the beatles from the rest of thepack . . . please please me would’ve been pretty tired by 1967 . . .when is some wiseacre gonna say ringo?. . . oh yeah, song . . .hey jude’s a good one . . .oh, and by the way, they’ve lost a little ground inthe race with jesus christ . . . i just googled; j.c.’s got the fab four by 29 million results . . . i was afraid to google kevin federline, as i fear he may be ahead of both of them . . .anything in revelations about that?

  • Sarah Roundell
    November 6, 2006

    Being the escapist that I am in my own life my characters are always on the move, so no one place is the setting in most of my writing. With the exception of Vegas, I do tend to move them to smaller towns which feel more comfortable for me to write about as I have never lived in a big or famously-known city and they tend to put my focus more on the characters themselves than their surroundings.

    As for The Beatles – I am most definitely a John Lennon fan and my favourite song would have to be the first one I ever heard which was “Revolution”, but I also enjoy “Hey Jude” which happens to be the single that “Revolution” appeared as the B-side on. So many of the ones mentioned in the comments today are ones I’m not familiar with so I’ll be busy checking them out.

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    November 6, 2006

    My favorite Beatle–oh how could I forget? Paul. I fell in love with Paul the night I first saw him with that funny looking guitar and silly haircut on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was five years old and from that day when I played house Paul was my husband. My heart was broken years later when he married Linda.

    Favorite Beatle song? That’s as hard as asking what is my favorite way of eating chocolate. Eleanor Rigby comes to mind, as does Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Revolution, and Hey Jude.

  • Juliet
    November 6, 2006

    In my photography, it’s always the abandoned. I can tell you every ghost town, abandoned factory, hospital, home and psychiatric facility in Ontario, and show you photos of them.

    In my work, it’s often the beach, or water of some sort.

    Favourite Beatle would be Lennon. I had an autographed photo of their Sit In for Love above my bed for about ten years. Spent years trying to figure out what he’d written.

    Song: Paperback Writer. Of course.

  • kenn
    November 6, 2006

    As a child my fave was Paul…. probably something mushy like Michelle was the song… but as I got older I realized how the bizarre songs of Lennon were so amazingly conceived both musically and lyrically… and I think “I’m Only Sleeping” and “I am the Walrus” are the best of the lot for examples.

  • kenn
    November 6, 2006

    By the way… I find it intersting that many people have listed a favorite Beatle and then gave a song title not of the same Beatle????? Perhaps it only points out what an incredible collective strength they had. How the sum is so much stronger than its parts.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 6, 2006

    All U.S. citizens – Just want to remind you: Tuesday, November 7th is the day Democrats vote, and Wednesday, November 8th is the day Republicans vote. Don’t forget!

    I’ll drop in tonight (after I meet my writing goal) and respond to all the new comments.

  • noria
    November 6, 2006

    My stories are mostly set in tweaked versions of places from my past: Sonoma and Marin, San Francisco.

    If I have to pick just one Beatle, it’d be John, and if I have to pick just one song, it’d be “Across the Universe.”

  • Mark Bastable
    November 6, 2006

    Incidentally, if you’d like my inconclusive view on the work of the Beatles, feel free to drop into .

  • Maria
    November 7, 2006

    Another music question!

    I’m neutral to negative on everything Beatles except for the White Album, with which I once had a rather mystical experience. Favorite song, far and away, is “I’m So Tired.”

    As for place, in my writing, its not the place itself but the echo of a place that recurs in my work; I grew up in an anyplace place, a nowheresville place, and its echo is this sort of empty-lot feeling that I find myself returning to again and again in my stories.

  • patry
    November 7, 2006

    I’ve written a series of stories that all took place in a low income housing project. By the time, I finished I with them, I had populated an entire neighborhod, knew what every
    one in it had for dinner, who they loved, what they feared, and I had uncovered the one secret they never wanted me to know.

    Favorite Beatle: John–the most talented, sexy and original one for my money.

    Favorite song: “I want to hold your hand.” It was innocence; it was exuberance; it defined an era.

    Now my question: Are you really related to Joseph Campbell?

  • Lance Reynald
    November 7, 2006

    kid’s music?

    you mean Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars isn’t kids music?

    hmmm. who knew??

    (lets all take a moment and thank the gals at planned parenthood from making sure I didn’t ever get to choose kid’s music)

  • Robin Slick
    November 7, 2006

    To Mark Bastable: I checked out your inconclusive view on the work of the Beatles.

    I’m stealing it for my own website.

    (But I’ll credit you, of course)

    Most excellent and the one shining light of my morning so far.


  • amy
    November 7, 2006

    The setting for my nearly-completed novel is left intentionally vague. At first I included references to various places I’ve lived, but ultimately I decided it was only a distraction. I wanted my story to have a more universal feel to it, so I changed New York to “the city”, gave my college an imaginary name, and removed explicit references to my home town.

    On the other hand, thanks to my recent move, the new project that’s germinating in my mind is strictly a Paris story.

    Personality wise, my favorite Beatle is George. He’s by far the coolest of them all, and his songs are beautiful too.

    I do, however, have a soft spot for John — there’s something in his voice, especially in a few particular songs (Day in the Life, I’m Only Sleeping…) that makes me want to wrap him in blankets and feed him tea. A beautiful vulnerability that can’t be matched in all of pop music.

    Over the years, I’ve had many, many favorite songs (is it obvious that I’m kind of a fan?), but right now it’s definitely the song “Girl”, off of Rubber Soul.

  • Myfanwy Collins
    November 7, 2006

    Oh I love this question! The one place I keep coming back to is where I grew up–in upstate New York, way up in the Adirondack Mountains near the border of Quebec. The place is rural, isolate, extremely beautiful and potentially brutal. It breeds a certain type of people (not talking about myself–I was not born there, moved there when I was ten): tough, independent, quick-witted, tender-hearted/cruel–survivors. That place is my heart and soul and when I write about it, I’m writing it a love letter.

    Favorite Beatle: John
    Favorite Beatle song: impossible to choose

  • Pia
    November 7, 2006

    My beloved New Orleans, but I like putting characters in cars and having them drive West across spillways, through raggedy cypress groves, or North across Lake Pontchartrain for 24 miles of 360 degree water and traveling birds.

    Beatle: Paul. Song: For No One. Ow. Ow. Ow. (Who was he thinking of when he wrote this song? Wait. Me, once.)

  • Mark Bastable
    November 7, 2006


    Take it, quote it, link to it, bring me MySpace friends.

    Another setting I often use, by the way, is a restaurant. It’s quite a challenge to come up with ways of making conversations in restaurants interesting; they tend to be so static, and it’s not even like you can too frequently have a man come through the door with a gun.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 7, 2006

    Gail – I am fascinated by Chicago. You’ll never run out of good material in that city. Hope you’re surviving election day. This is the first time in years I haven’t worked on an election day. (It’s Bach-Boy’s birthday so no 5am – 10pm hours for me.)

    Jonathan – I’m always happy to see you pop in! Very funny about Federline. I’m afraid to know!

    Sarah – Fascinating that your characters like to be on the move. I like that.

    Carolyn – I was jealous when Peter Frampton wrote a song for some girl named Penny. I hated her.

    Juliet – I love that you answered the question of setting from a photographer’s point of view.

    Kenny – (Yay, he loves me!)

    Noria – Those are settings I’d love to read about.

    Mark – Yes, you could use more friends. All you MySpacers, why don’t you add Mark?

    Maria – I love your description of nowheresville. Did you finish that book at MacDowell?

    Patry – I married in. And like all marriages, it brings in cool things (like invitations to party with Bill Moyers and George Lucas) and not so cool things (like knowing more Republicans than you think one should and being privy to information that is very very hard not to blog about).

    The geeky-as-all-get-out science genes come from my side of the family.

    Your housing project stories sound fascinating!

    Lance – We played Ziggy Stardust and Frank Zappa as kids music, too.

    Robin – Isn’t Mark’s MySpace great! Loads of attitude.

    Amy – Nearly completed? Hooray! When you’re done, you’ll have to give us something of a back cover blurb. (I love the Rubber Soul album.)

    Myfanwy – This is something I want to read and I hope an editor hurries up and buys your manuscript!

    Pia – That song’s so good, I’ve never even heard a bad cover of it. Have you ever heard Maura O’Connell do it? (Don’t know if I spelled her name right.) When’s the publication date of your book?

  • Noria
    November 7, 2006

    I love what Maria said about “the echo of a place.” I’ve found it impossible to write about any place when I presently live there – I can only write about the echo of it after I’ve left.

  • Maria
    November 7, 2006

    Hi, Susan! You must have the wrong Maria; I *wish* I am/was/were at MacDowell. I’ve never been to a colony… or written a book for that matter! I’m a short story writer, and I’m just barely starting to get my work out there, but I’m going to take that MacDowell mix-up as a good omen 🙂

  • Shelley Marlow
    November 8, 2006

    My Mom loves MacArther Park,too, with the cake melting in the rain. I think she listened to the Richard Harris version.

    I return to the Boston area where I grew up, Italy, and Brooklyn.

    I love George the best, because we share the same birthday. John is a favorite, too, especially after he did that primal therapy album with Yoko.

    Sleeping is one of my favorite songs. Wet beneath the blue suburban skys…is one of my favorite lines. I used to sing that medley: Golden slumbers fill your eyes, sleep pretty darling do not cry and I will sing a luluby… to my cat when she was dying.

  • Shelley Marlow
    November 8, 2006

    “Just want to remind you: Tuesday, November 7th is the day Democrats vote, and Wednesday, November 8th is the day Republicans vote. Don’t forget!”
    Right ON!

  • Robin Slick
    November 8, 2006

    Mark, not only did I steal your comment, I made it the “about me” on my blogger profile which shows prominently on the front page of my blog — I credit you of course along with a link to your MySpace. Unfortunately, I suck at MySpace but when I do my next blog post today, I will officially link you on the right and call attention and link it again in today’s post.

    Sometimes certain statements really touch a nerve with me and I could not have written that paragraph better myself.

    It’s like if I were single and dated a guy and saw an Aerosmith or Garth Brooks CD in his collection, I’m afraid I’d get my coat and leave without giving me him a chance to even explain. There would be no hope for us as a couple. Ha.


  • n.l. belardes
    November 8, 2006

    Joey Porter is from Bakersfield, an area rich in agriculture, oil, and water. I wonder if Porter would do an interview on Paperback Writer, just to make you jealous?

    Obviously I write a lot about the mystique of Bakersfield, California. It’s a perfect region for writing. It’s in Hollywood’s Backyard. It’s like the Old West, in a way, and is at the Southern end of the Central Valley–some say the most fertile soil on the planet. It’s home to weird urband legends like the Lords of Bakersfield.

    My favorite Beatles song is Paperback Writer for obvious reasons. Type in “Paperback Writer” into Google and I’m on page one, right with the Beatles.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 8, 2006

    Noria – I hear that often, that it’s hard to write in a place while you’re still in it. Maybe because we like to wait till it’s filtered through memory to see which details left impressions.

    Maria – How wonderful to have so many Marias! We’ll have to start doing last names around here. And you don’t need good luck or good omens or anything of the sort. We all pounced on your nowheresville post because you gave us chills!

    Shelley – It’s nice to see those lyrics on their own. It’s like hearing the song for the first time again.

    (P.S. It worked!)

    Robin – I thrive on Mr. Henderson having different taste than me. I’ve been told often that I’m a rebel at heart, and if I ever play a song and someone (not me) sings along to it, I immediately turn it off and try to find something that’s mine alone.

    n.l. – I’d be so jealous. But in the best way.

  • Pia
    November 9, 2006

    To answer Sue’s question: publication date for FAMOUS FATHERS is June 2007.

  • Stephanie Lessing
    November 10, 2006

    Oh Susan, how I love this website. I can go on with my day now. This is like medicine for me, for some reason. Not sure what it is exactly that puts me in this relaxed state of mind. I commented you on myspace. Hopefully I explained it better there, and I can’t wait to read Jim’s book.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 11, 2006

    Stephanie – That’s the sweetest thing. Thank you! xo

  • Maryh Holland
    January 1, 2009

    It’s the first day of 2009 and I just found this site, so it looks like I’m late. My books take place in the Known Worlds, a confederation of different planets held together by commerce and the Council of the Known Worlds. Some are more pleasant than others. The people aren’t all the same species and not even all human-like but they intermingle on the streets of the cities, trade with each other, go to war, make peace, etc. Treaties and monetary systems are worked out for the benefit of the peoples they serve, through the Council.
    Favorite Beatle? I like Paul who just keeps on going but I once loved their sound as a group. Something In The Way She Moves is a soothing but uplifting one to listen to when I’m down, Yellow Submarine is the one that can stick in my head and bounce around for days, too many others to mention. I liked other groups and people, everything from the Stones to sweet ol’ Donovan, back in the day.

Susan Henderson