The land is flat and stoic, like the people that live upon it. The wind is a savage bully. If only it could be jailed for pushing children into walls, or stealing hats, backpacks, and entire houses. Gravel roads checkerboard the Iowan plain. In each checkered box is a field, and if, in that box, there stands a clump of planted trees, the passerby will always — and I do mean always — find a two story farmhouse, a flaking red barn, and a worn shed.
My hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa is the setting for Jane Resh Thomas’s book, The Princess in the Pigpen. Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Russo, in his essay on setting, says that we as writers are a “product of place” (78). He encourages the writer not to disregard the places he’s been or lived, but to use them as compost for setting. Jane Resh Thomas, in her book, the Princess in the Pigpen, weaves little bits of interior and exterior setting with that of character to create an emotional tapestry of place. I argue that these bits of detail are not just random facts or descriptions, but details mined from the very life of the author.
Richard Russo, in an essay on location, explains that interior objects and possessions can deepen the readers understanding of a character (69). But I believe Ms. Thomas takes this idea a step further, or rather, deeper. In her opening chapter (conveniently titled, What is This Place), the author begins her time travel narrative by establishing the setting through dramatic action. Elizabeth lies in a feather bed, shivering beneath a fur coverlet. She is attended to by a nurse who is dipping a lace handkerchief into a silver basin. Immediately, in the author’s description, we are familiar with the setting.
Elizabeth is wealthy. She is the daughter of nobility. She lives in a time where herb ladies, coverlets, and nursemaids are commonplace. We learn in the opening pages that Elizabeth is beset with fever. She is sick with an unknown, but greatly feared ailment. Elizabeth’s mother is near death. The situation is dire, even hopeless. But, suddenly Elizabeth’s world turns topsy-turvy and, by magic or happenstance, Elizabeth finds herself in a pigpen.
“In all her nine years, she had never seen such a wretched place […] she stood with pigs surrounding her, jostling her and crowding toward a trough. The sharp odor of pig manure choked her and turned her stomach” (Thomas 3).
Here, the audience not only knows the setting but they also now know Elizabeth! Donald Maass, President of the Donald Mass Literary Agency and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, gives authors this advice for writing vivid setting.
“Our perception of place changes as we change […] The same is true of characters in fiction. Take them anywhere and show us how they feel about the place, or how that place makes them feel, and you will reveal to us volumes about their inner frozenness, or growth” (179).
Mr. Mass is saying that setting comments on the character. “Take them anywhere and show us how they feel about the place,” says Maass. Did Ms. Thomas do this? The answer is an emphatic yes! Thomas shows how interior setting reflects the internal, emotional state of her main character. For example, why did the author transport Elizabeth into a pigpen? Perhaps the author subconsciously wanted to show (not tell) Elizabeth’s hopeless situation. Could it be that, that picture of Elizabeth standing amongst the pigs, is a juxtaposition of her life in England? Here stands a self-
important girl surrounded by one big mess, and she doesn’t know what to do. We saw that same helplessness in Elizabeth, at the very beginning of the book, before she entered the pigpen. The setting of the pigpen is an outward expression of Elizabeth’s inward problem and it subconsciously helps the reader identify and empathize with the main character.
The second thing this setting reveals is Elizabeth’s attitude. She meets an Iowa farmer and Ms. Thomas quickly contrasts the farmers shabby blue jeans with that of Elizabeths elegant gown.
“He was wearing rough blue pantaloons and a waistcoat over a tartan blouse […] She looked down at her favorite dress. The gold tracery Sukie had embroidered on the bodice and sleeves glittered in the splinter of sun. But wherever the pigs had brushed against her, they had smeared and stained the claret velvet” (5).
Elizabeth treats this farmer and his family no better than filthy animals. And why not, she believes herself better than everyone, a princess among the common swine. In fact, Elizabeth believes herself better than the pigpen, the mess, she is currently in.
Jane Resh Thomas again reveals a myriad of details about Elizabeth through exterior setting, but Ms. Thomas does a very important thing, she describes the setting through Elizabeth’s point of view. “When point of view is done well, place and perception are inextricably entwined,” writes Maass. “A place is filtered not only through the person, but through the person’s age, social station, [and] personality…” (178). Watch how Thomas defends Mr. Maass’ assumption.
“As she walked, she looked across the harvested corn with amazement, for the land was flat, stretching miles away to the horizon […] Flocks of blackbirds wheeled in the sky and alighted suddenly by unanimous decision to glean the seeds the harvesters had missed […] But her steps were slowing and her legs were wobbly. She sat down in the dusty grass along the side of the road to rest and eat an apple” (69 – 71).
What information can we gather about Elizabeth by studying this passage? First, she turns off the road to rest in the grass. She doesn’t sit in the clean, fresh grass, no, instead Ms. Thomas draws our attention to the dirt roads and dusty grass. All around Elizabeth are vast fields, but the fields are barren, harvested. Harvest happens when the corn is dead and dry, usually late October or early November. Combines rip out the golden stocks, leaving behind fields lined with pointed brown stubs. Elizabeth is sitting in the dead and dusty grass, surrounded by barren fields, scavenging birds, and miles … centuries away from home. The setting, tells me, without being overbearing, that Elizabeth is lost, lonely, and even empty.
Throughout the rest of the book, the author continues to develop Elizabeth by describing her life back in England. We learn that Elizabeth is an acquaintance of Queen Elizabeth I, that she knows several languages, and that she lives in a grand house. If the details of Elizabeth’s life were to be put on a scale, the scale would tip toward the reader knowing much more about Elizabethan England than modern day Iowa. I, as the reader, don’t feel comfortable in Iowa. I am enchanted by Elizabeth’s life in England, her family, and the court of the Queen. But, like Elizabeth, I’m stuck in Iowa and don’t know what to do. I want her home. I want her to save her mother.
Only after Elizabeth willingly trades her beautiful doll for a Raggedy Ann, wears the shoes of a peasant, and sees the farmers as her equals, does Elizabeth return to England to save her family.
The setting is a pigpen and the character a princess, yet when understanding one we understand the other. Elizabeth believed she was better than her “setting”. At the very beginning of the book, Elizabeth was terrified of the pigs and their mess. At the end of the book, Elizabeth marches through the dung and mud, unconcerned about the peasant boots upon her feet, and unafraid of what the pigs might do to her velvet dress. Elizabeth embraced the pen and its pigs. She returned home, to the mess she didn’t know how to solve, with a solution; a solution she found in a pigpen.
A tapestry is composed of many threads woven together to form a picture. The threads are carefully selected and are painstakingly tied or spun into place by the master weaver. The material itself, the details, are bits and pieces of thread. The details, the internal and external objects, form setting and inform character. But, I’m more concerned with the artist of the tapestry than I am with the work itself. So deep, yet effortless is the setting, it causes one to wonder if the story of the pigpen is rather the story of the author than that of Elizabeth. I don’t know if my conclusion is correct, and I don’t want to press my own interpretation upon the author, but I feel as if the author wants to accept the place she came from, accept all the inner emotional garbage, and external problems in order to grow or get to the place where she can find healing. But, only she can answer my question.
Behind every work of art is a person. Their piece may be technically precise, but one can identify an artist’s work by the strokes of his brush, the fabrics and art of his weave, or the style of his prose. I can learn much by studying Ms. Thomas’ craft, however, studying the technical details will not show me how to paint the Mona Lisa’s smile. Craft books instruct the writer on the instruments, the parts of the loom, the colors of thread. But, I suggest that in addition to books on craft, that the writer consider Richard Russo’s premise, that the writer is a product of place. The key to unlocking vivid setting comes from mining the details inside; those forgotten streets, those hurtful places. And from that internal compost will thread a place, a picture woven by the author, composed of little bits of detail, the most interesting of characters bound in a tapestry of setting.
Checkoway, Julie. Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati, OH: Story, 2001. Print.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-on Help for Making Your Novel Stand out and Succeed. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 2004. Print.
Thomas, Jane Resh. The Princess in the Pigpen. New York: Clarion, 1989. Print.