Yes, I’m hearing the unforgettable words and music of Lerner and Loewe’s song from My Fair Lady.
“I have often walked down this street before…”
And here’s an old post-card picture of a street that I have, indeed, often walked down. It’s Dunbar Avenue in the little town of Excelsior Springs, Missouri. I lived on Dunbar Avenue for the first eighteen years of my life, and even though this photograph was taken long before I was born, the scene is still familiar enough to spark a few nostalgic feelings.
During my childhood days, Excelsior Springs boasted a population of 5,000. It’s much larger today, and over the years, the town has undergone tremendous changes.
As a writer, I sometimes think I have an advantage because of where I grew up. Unlike so many other small towns, Excelsior Springs always had a unique quality about it. It had its own story.
I won’t go into all the details of the town and its history, but it does make for interesting reading. If you’re curious, you’ll find a lot of information about the town here:
Essentially, the town grew up around its mineral-rich springs. It was a place of clinics and doctors, a spa where visitors from around the world came to “take the waters”.
What I learned from growing up in this little town, was how a place had a meaning of its own, how where we live affects our lives, our decisions, our own personal stories. I experienced the changes taking place in the city as it grew and flourished in the 1950s, then sank into disrepute in the 1960s as the waters were declared a hoax. I understood first-hand how closely-connected our own thoughts and feelings can be with the events taking place around us.
Today, Excelsior Springs is experiencing a rebirth. Its story continues, and maybe it will, in time, triumph over the hardships it’s suffered. But though it may triumph, it will never be the same. Transformation may bring renewed hope and even happiness, but at its heart, it signifies life-altering change.
Excelsior Springs is very much a character in my life story, complete with its own “arc” of growth and development, it’s own “black moment”, it’s own desperate struggles and its valiant “leap of faith” into the future. To understand what story form and character development are, I have only to go back to my roots, to look at an old picture post card and remember my childhood.
Most writers aren’t so fortunate, especially younger writers. Today’s towns are woefully “homogenized”. No matter where we travel, we can enjoy the same fast-food restaurants, shop at the same chains of stores, and sleep in the comfort of roadside inns whose names, slogans, and logos are familiar to us all.
When it comes time to write, setting is important. It isn’t enough to simply choose a locale, throw in a few geographical facts, and reference a landmark or two.
If we’re creating a fictional town of our own, the challenge is even greater. And what if we’re setting out to create an entire new world? What can we draw upon then?
I think the key to using setting in our stories comes from understanding its mood and meaning. I can clearly state what Excelsior Springs symbolized for me at various stages. In my earliest childhood, it represented old-fashioned hospitality, glorious beauty, a celebration of life. In later years, it came to represent falsehood, misguided beliefs, emptiness, and despair. Now, it’s come around to stand for hope, renewal, dedication, and perserverance.
What about your town, your place, the street where you live? What does it mean to you? What story does it have to tell?
What about your fictional towns and cities? Can you find the mood and meaning that brings them to life? Can you tell their stories, their histories, their struggles?
Today, I invite each of you to take a walk down the street where you live. Wander, too, down streets of your childhood. What makes each place different? How can you capture these essential differences and put them into your story? How can you build a setting so real that it will truly become a part of your characters’ lives?
Details are important, but what matters even more, I think, are the larger issues that shape our settings and define their role.
I leave you now with a few more pictures of scenes from my childhood.
- Excelsior Springs Banquet opens in Saratoga (timesunion.com)