When Your Story Setting Chooses You

You may have visited or lived in a place you knew would become a setting for a story you had yet to write. A place that spoke to you in not only a visceral, emotional way, but also in an intellectual, reflective way, causing you to look deeper into yourself and the world around you.

As opposed to a story setting which acts merely as background music and a place for your characters to interact, I had a place like the one referred to above, a place I felt could reverberate through the action and characters like a symphony reverberates through an audience and concert hall. A setting to become almost a character, the elephant in the room. I had a location just waiting for its moment.

As an intern teacher, my first assignment, after a semester at the Campus School at Buffalo College SUNY, was to an elementary school in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. (I lived midway between the cities of Niagara Falls and Buffalo, a commuter student.) Each day of the week, I drove to Niagara Falls for my assignment, each day of the week I experienced “the Falls.”

I never tired in the course of my drive of seeing the wide, serene Niagara River turn to rapids then divide and drop over a precipice of about 180 feet known as the American Falls and the nearby larger Canadian Falls named the Horseshoe Falls. The majesty and power of the scene burned into my memory. Whenever I had a moment, I’d park and, with the many tourists, stand at the rails to look, becoming both awed and introspective.


The American Falls courtesy of nydailynews.com

During that time, I saw the Falls not only from behind a safety rail, but from the Cave of the Winds, where clad in yellow slickers curious people like myself could walk behind the tons of dropping water and experience the natural wonder up close.

I also saw the Falls years later from the air. One memorable flight occurred on a chartered plane with the Northern Illinois University football team. My husband and I flew with them from the Chicago area to Buffalo International for a game with the University of Buffalo. When the female pilot announced we would soon be flying over the Falls, an air of expectancy filled the plane followed by expressions of awe from the players when the sight came into view. For a special moment I witnessed the effect on these young men. Everyone seemed struck by the wonder of it all, the beauty, the power.

Time passed. Then a few years ago a character by the name of Nick Ferrelli popped into my head. (My husband’s Italian.) As a gelatinous plot wriggled into my thoughts, I knew Nick, a good guy, would be pulled into a torrent of events bigger than himself. I knew just where I wanted the action to take place. Yep. Niagara Falls. The story became “Ferrelli’s Fall.”

Niagara Falls has been the setting for many a book (e.g. The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates) and film (e.g. Niagara starring Joseph Cotton and Marilyn Monroe), but now they were Nick’s to experience for the first time. Nick, on seeing the Horseshoe Falls …

            Nick lowered the car window. The roar of fast moving water thundering over the precipice of the Canadian Falls and crashing onto the rocks below exploded in his ears. Fine mist rose into the sunlit air, falling like gossamer rain back into the Falls, onto the road, onto the adjacent park. Tourists held jackets or umbrellas over their heads or, bareheaded, allowed the mist to shower down on them. A fragile rainbow hung in the fine spray.

            In a crowded parking lot, he jockeyed his car into a spot just vacated by a jeep with Quebec plates. He hurried across the highway toward an iron safety rail where sightseers crowded along the fence, a cacophony of water hurling onto the fallen rocks below, deafening him. He edged between a tattooed biker and a blond man with a backpack slung over his shoulder.

            The biker turned to Nick, his voice a shout. “Folks used to go over them falls in a barrel. That’s some kinda crazy.”


The Canadian or Horseshoe Falls courtesy of wild.com

In another scene in a local bar called The Falls Inn, Nick experiences the Falls in another way. He meets a character by the name of Captain Jack MacGregor, a former captain of a vessel known as The Maid of the Mist which plies the water below the Falls, enabling tourists to be close to the tumult. Nick asks,

“Tell me, Captain, what’s it like to be in those waters?”

            “It’s a roiling cauldron, son. Never dull. Gotta know where the rocks are. They’re tumblin’ all the time.” Captain Jack finished his drink, smacked his lips, waved to the bartender for another. “Always somethin’, like when I was all set to perform a weddin’. The groom suddenly went missin’. My mate found ‘im in the galley. Hidin’, he was. Said he’d changed his mind. The bride-to-be tossed her bouquet overboard and told the guy to get lost. A sturdy little lass she was.”

            Nick gave a short laugh. “I’ve been a little commitment shy myself, or so I’ve been told.”

            “Take your time, mate. Take your time.” The Captain wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Also had a pretty little lass, in her twenties she was, try to jump over the rail. Kept yellin’, ‘Get away! Let me go!’ My mate and I pulled her back.”

            “Poor kid.” Nick thought about Maggie, the night she stormed out of the condo. For good. He knew all about life’s unexpected turns, all about its sad turns.

            “Yep, these waters, these falls draw ‘em all, more than just honeymooners or jilted lovers. The suicides and loonies flock here like gulls to dead fish.” Captain Jack scratched his chest, peering at Nick with watery eyes. “Ever want to kill yourself, son?”

Through the course of writing the story, I not only drew from Niagara Falls and its considerable imprint on me, but I also had a challenge – exploring characters and moral codes set against that backdrop. The whole piece, on the cusp of a novelette of about 7,000 words, will be in a collection of short stories, slowly coming together. The present working titles for the book are Racing from the Dark or Racing from the Night. Which do you like? Members of my critique group want more of Nick. We’ll see.


About cmwriter

I'm a writer ... of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I blog about writing, short stories, poetry, books, plays, and thoughts on life. Love reading and travel and being with friends!
This entry was posted in Authors, blogging, Books, Creativity, fiction writing, Finding Ideas: The Creative Process, Inspiration, Looking for Inspiration, Reading, short story, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to When Your Story Setting Chooses You

  1. Dolores Carrutherd says:

    The night is more basic because night is more established in our awareness. Dark is more complex and has the potential for richer exploration of what dark means to the character and readers.

  2. Dolores Carruthers says:

    Dark is more complex, more open to exploration and interpretation whereas night is part of everyday knowledge.

  3. I love Dark. Great blog!

  4. Also, great writing! Miss you!!

  5. Danielle Cook says:

    You are so right when you talk about a setting choosing you. I lived in a very quirky High Desert community for four years and will be using it as a setting for a novel I am planning. Your story about Nick is fascinating and the mood set by the falls is perfect. I have been there and you capture the place beautifully!

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