When settings become characters – Teri Emory

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By Teri Emory

I didn’t set out to have places become characters in my novel. After all, Second Acts is character driven. The book focuses on relationships, especially the enduring friendship among three women — Sarah, Miriam, and Beth. But as soon as I had Sarah say, “I was dreaming about Paris,” — the very first sentence of Chapter 1 – I suspected that settings would serve as more than mere backdrops in this book.

As I developed each of the central characters, it was clear to me that the places where their stories unfold would influence the choices they made and how they lived their lives. As I placed my characters in their settings, I began to think of the “character traits” of each place, the details beyond the physical ones that made the settings live and breathe.

For Sarah, whose creative and professional dreams have been back-burnered for years and whose marriage leads to “a detour from the life I’d always wanted,” Paris has little to do with the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. The city feeds her soul and reminds her of opportunities that still hold promise. She subscribes to a newsletter for “Americans like me who believe that if life were just, they’d have a pied à terre on the Rive Gauche.” In Sarah’s imagination, Paris is both a temptation and the hero she hopes will rescue her.

Miriam, too, has an emotional connection to a place, but in her case, there is nothing heroic about the role it plays in her life. Miriam was devastated by a failed love affair that took place largely in Savannah, and for years afterwards, her painful memories of Savannah serve as an obstacle to her taking a chance on love again. Thinking about the green dress she wore on a particularly romantic night there is enough to reconnect her to that episode in her life. In later years, “…over and over again, I would find myself drawn to buying and wearing green … when I opened my closet or bureau drawer, I was reconnected with Savannah. I didn’t believe I was consciously choosing to spark those memories. But the past is never where you think you’ve left it.” For Miriam, Savannah is an antagonist that traps her in the past.

Beth has experienced a tragic loss, and to escape from her sadness, she often loses herself in reliving moments from the college semester she spent in Rome, when she fell in love for the first time. “There must have been rainy days, cold temperatures, difficult moments in Rome, but I remember only warmth, and sunshine, and joy,” she says. Every aspect she recalls — of the buildings, the art, the music, her boyfriend — reminds her of a time when “the world was full of possibilities.” For Beth, Rome is not just the Eternal City that tourists know, it is her confidant, her crush, her crutch.

As these settings came alive for me and my characters, I had to avoid my tendency to get carried away with physical descriptions of places I loved. I had to remind myself from time to time that I was writing a novel, not a travel guide. I had to go lightly on details that had no emotional connection to my characters. I had to re-imagine every setting as having traits that people have, and I had to select the role (hero? villain? mentor? coach? temptation?) each one would play in Second Acts. I was surprised and pleased to see how important settings-as-characters would turn out to be in a novel driven by relationships.

Teri Emory is living proof that a liberal arts education does not necessarily make a person unemployable. She has taught writing and literature at universities from coast to coast. She was lucky to live in Rome for a bit, where she taught English to Soviet immigrants awaiting relocation to the US. Her articles and poems have appeared in print and online publications. Second Acts is her debut novel.



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