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Setting the Story: An Original Essay by Ann Patchett

When writing a novel, choosing the setting is every bit as important as choosing the characters. If I know a city too well, I tend to get hung up on the details. My imagination is crowded out by an intimate understanding of traffic patterns and restaurant locations. If I know a city not at all, it means losing a lot of time doing research when I want to be writing. The best solution is to find a place that strikes a balance between knowledge and ignorance, so when I wrote my novel, Run, the sister cities of Boston and Cambridge presented me with a perfect solution. I had lived in Cambridge thirteen years ago while on a fellowship at Radcliffe College, and I've been in and out of Boston for most of my adult life. Better still, I had plenty of friends there who could tell me which train my characters would take when they needed to get from point A to point B. No reader should be jarred from a narrative because someone is boarding the pink line when everyone knows that the pink line doesn't exist.

Every time I returned to the cities on fact-finding missions, I was surprised that my characters tended to hang out in places I'd never been before, especially at Harvard, which I thought I knew well. While I had favored swimming in the Blodgett pool, they went running at the Gordon track, while I had spent countless hours in the Fogg Art Museum, they spent their time in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (known as the MCZ). Tip, one of the young brothers in my book, studied ichthyology, and so I made arrangements to see where the 1.3 million dead fishes are stored. How had I spent a year on the Radcliffe campus without ever venturing over to Harvard's natural history museum? It is perhaps the most fascinating and beautiful museum I have ever seen, even if you can't visit the dead fishes (which aren't available to the general public for viewing). The place is a treasure trove of taxidermy, dusty dinosaur bones, and dazzling minerals. It contains a collection of glass flowers which were created for the museum over the lifetimes of father and son glassblowers from Bavaria. For a sheer breath-taking spectacle of wonder, I would put those flowers up against all the jewels in the Kremlin (which you can confirm is a sizable statement the next time you're in Moscow.)

Setting a book in a city makes you see that city again, no matter how well you know it. I walked through Harvard Yard and thought how the place would look to both Tip, a Harvard student, and Kenya, his recently discovered sister, an eleven year old girl from the projects. I imagined her at the front steps of Widner Library and was once again struck by its grandeur. There is a reason why Harvard is constantly overrun with tourists: it isn't just a very good university, it's a sort of shrine to American education, and for reasons of history, architecture, and achievement, it is a school worth taking pictures of.

One of my biggest challenges was finding the right house in Boston for my characters to live in. I had the neighborhood picked out, but which street? Some kindly Boston friends drove me around to house hunt. After many hours, Maxine and I were hungry and tired while Al, who was behind the wheel, kept on thinking of one more place I should see. We begged him to stop, and when we passed Aquavit, one of my favorite restaurants, Maxine and I banged on the windows and demanded he pull over. And so he did, right in front of Union Park Street. How had I never noticed it before? It was perfect, with stunning townhouses lining a slim, capsule shaped park. After lunch I discovered that we weren't three blocks from the Cathedral Housing Project, which was adjacent to the Holy Cross Cathedral. Since this was a book about the intersection of wealth and poverty with a healthy dose of Catholicism thrown in, I felt like I had won the novelists' lottery.

When looking at a city with a sensibility that is not your own, you often wind up in places you would otherwise never seek out. One day I took off in a terrible snowstorm to find a retirement home for priests, as the book featured an aging priest in failing health. Even though I was pelted by ice, I kept telling myself it was all for the good. After all, the novel takes place in a snow storm. When I finally found the home I was both frozen and thrilled. I took a minute to step inside the beautiful little church next door where surely the pious younger brother, Teddy, would have stopped after visiting his uncle. I would never have seen it or known it was there, even though I had been within blocks of the place any number of times. But why would I need to see it, or, for that matter, why see the glass flowers at the MCZ? Why would I need to notice the bricks in the sidewalks or the etched glass over the front doors on Union Park Street? Maybe just because it challenged what I knew about the city. It's easy to bring our own set of perceptions to any place where we are a visitor. I seek out the kinds of things I would particularly like no matter where I go. I find the shops that sell to my taste, restaurants and hotels and museums that will bring me the fare that pleases me most. But by using my imagination, I can have a chance to see a different city, even if it's a city I know fairly well. By thinking about what someone else might look for, I was drawn down different streets, and those streets showed me layer after layer of the world, even though that world was once my home.

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Ann Patchett is the author of four novels: The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; The Magician's Assistant, for which she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; and Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award, England's Orange Prize, the Book Sense Book of the Year Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It has been translated into thirty languages. Her nonfiction book, Truth and Beauty, was a New York Times bestseller and the winner of a Books for a Better Life Award. Patchett lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize), and the nonfiction bestsellers What Now? and Truth and Beauty. Her latest book is This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is co-owner of Parnassus Books.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Run: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $7.50
  2. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
    Used Hardcover $10.50

Ann Patchett is the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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