When young I was introduced to the ‘Borrowers’ series by Mary Norton and I devoured them, and then over many years, reread my tattered copies, eventually reading them to my son. When he was three he took a screwdriver to the wall, creating a back door for the Borrowers.
There are other books with similar themes. ‘The Littles’ come to mind. Those books were written after the Borrowers, and my younger sister read them avidly. But to me they lacked something. A few months ago I discovered that there was one final ‘Borrowers’ book I had never heard of, written in the 1980’s, long after the others. I purchased it and it was like slipping right back into an imaginary world full of friends that I had missed.
Reading it after many years of writing though, caused me to look at it differently. I wanted to discover the secret of why those books so appealed to me. There are the obvious reasons: strong characters to care about, awful villains to fear, adventures that pull you out of your every day existence. But those reasons can be found in any good book, so why did these so resonate? One answer I have come up with is the setting.
The stories take place in very old Victorian era homes in rural England. The descriptions are so well written that the setting becomes a character in itself, equally important to the story. Set the Borrowers in the middle of London and they would not appeal to me as much. But put me under the floorboards, with dust sifting down, with Arietty sitting next to the grate looking out at a world forbidden to her, of grass and sunshine and birds…and I’m there breathing that fresh summer air coming in.
Setting in a story cannot be underestimated. I’ve found that out in my own writing. Inevitably I find my stories in the mountains. Deep forests, whitewater, granite. I’ve managed stories set where my family homesteaded in rural Montana, and those stories have been okay, but the mountains are what pull at me. I find mystery in the shadowed mossy trees, I find my characters in the people who choose to live with bears and cougars (and maybe even Bigfoot?). Again, the setting becomes a character vital to the story.
Finding a balance in writing description can be tricky. Too much and the reader skims, bored. Not enough, and the reader leaves. I am coming to believe, thanks to those little people in the walls, that if setting becomes alive for the writer, if it becomes more than just description, then the whole story comes alive. And maybe will become a story someone will read and read again.