Inspiration's Directional Arrow: Setting and Genre

The Disintegrating Barn as Setting

How Many Stories Could You Set Here?

This abandoned barn is located adjacent to the daycare where I work the early morning shift. I discovered it at 8:30 am, while leaving for the day. It was the day after a snowfall, and everything about the scene screamed at me and said, "Write me!"

I immediately began plotting stories set in this decaying and frozen piece of architecture, and the more plotting I did, the more I saw this single location as being the perfect setting for a myriad of stories. 

There is no road access to the barn. Set back in the shadow of tall trees and bordered by a meandering, dead fall strewn creek, the building would make the perfect, private haunt. Or hideaway. Murder site. False front to the secret lair of some corporation. Crashing pad for the homeless. Portal to a historical dimension in time. Snake pit. Drug deal meeting site. Porn movie set. Smuggling base. Tragic location of a suicide pact. Site for a lovers tryst. 

As the barn inspires me, I realize that the manner in which I utilize this location within a story will determine the type of story I write. It will determine (and be determined by) the genre I wish to pursue. I can take a single setting (the falling down barn), and depending on how I treat it, can develop that into any genre of story I choose. 



Old Barn Map

Old Barn Surroundings

Online dictionaries define setting as, "the place or type of surroundings where something is positioned or where an event takes place." This definition is helpful in understanding how setting effects genre.

Our daycare is located in what once was the banquet center of the town golf course. The property was recently purchased by the town, and a middle school will be built soon. For now, though, this barn borders our south-facing parking lot. The town high school is located directly in front of us (west), separated by a six foot chain link fence topped by strands of barbed wire. To the left of the building where I work, several holes of the golf course are still operational (north). On the other side, beyond the barn and next to the high school, there is a park containing a skateboard pit, water park, amphitheater, washrooms, and a treed area where stoners gather (far south). Behind all of this (east) is a retirement facility. The barn belongs to the one single family dwelling located in the center of this cluster. You must utilize the retirement center's access road to reach the home. 

Contextualizing these new geographical details will begin to add direction to your setting map. I have an empty, decrepit barn next to a daycare whose staff arrives at 6:30 AM. Suppose that one morning, as the worker parks her car, she notices a strange, flickering light coming from the direction of the barn. Investigating, she discovers a fire is burning outside the building. Is someone living in the old barn? You have the beginnings of a mystery.

On the other hand, suppose the same girl arrives at work one morning and the parking lot is ablaze with emergency vehicles. She is horrified to learn that overnight, several high school students have killed themselves in the old barn. Young adult novel? 

What if two high school students decide to investigate the old barn late one night, are getting a little bit frisky, and suddenly, a paranormal entity interrupts their make out session? What if a vampire interrupts them? Suppose the vampire changes them, and now you have a nest of vampires living next to a high school and to a daycare? Suddenly, your setting is impacting everything in your story. It is guiding your plot.

What if the police chase the stoners out of the park, and they gravitate to the old barn instead? Or, suppose one of the daycare children is misbehaving and, running off, finds himself in the old barn. What happens next will determine where this book gets placed on a store's book shelves, and yet, with all of these scenarios, there is only one constant—the old barn.

Bright Sunshiny Day

Same Barn, Different Day, Different Mood, Different Story

The day after I initially photographed this old barn was a beautiful, clear, sunshiny day. The light was streaming through the trees, sparkling on the previous day's snowfall, and suddenly, a structure which had spoken to me of the dark and vaguely ominous only 24 hours before, now tugged at my heart strings and said, once upon a time I was something great. Once upon a time, someone hoped to create something great, so they built me. The stories I would have set in this barn on this chilly, clear morning were entirely different than those of the previous morning.

Suppose someone investigating the old barn fell through a hole in the structure, landed in a sub-basement, and upon landing discovered they had actually traveled backwards in time? What if they arrived on the day when the barn was bright and new, and fell in love with the handsome, hard working settler? What would I find out about this barn and its people were I to head to the local historical society and dig for details on the settlers of this town where I live? 

I took one subject—an old barn—snapped one moody photograph on a winter's day and one revealing photograph streaming with sunshine a day later, and that is enough to send my imagination and my writing spiraling through all potential avenues of genre.  

Most often, when developing a story, writer's initially think of a character or a plot idea, then decide where to place them. Sometimes, though, this process is reversed. Inspirational locations can be very effective as a muse. Setting can be the driving force for the direction your story or book takes, so pay attention to your surroundings. Let the world around you play on your senses. And when your setting starts screaming at you, the way mine often screams at me, then heed the call. Take up your pen and write.

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