Building Setting in Your Writing

Author Celeste Mohammed’s secrets for building evocative settings in her new novel-in-stories.

Every MFA program has that one star student. The writer everyone agrees will be the one to Make It. When I was at Lesley University, our star on the rise was, without a doubt, Celeste Mohammed

So when Celeste announced last year that her novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, was coming out May 2021, absolutely no one was surprised. That doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of this magnificent writer for getting the success she deserves, because oh my god, I COULD NOT BE MORE PROUD OF HER. If you pick up Pleasantview, you’ll understand exactly why she’s received a slew of well-deserved awards, including the a 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John D. Gardner Memorial Prize—her writing is rich with place and setting, specifically Celeste’s native Trinidad and Tobago.

Celeste recently revealed to me her secrets for building evocative settings. Here’s our conversation.

In writing within and about Trinidad, what did you feel was most important for you to convey about the setting when writing these stories?

Edginess, and vastness. Life on an island is different to mainland life. Here, you are surrounded by edges—you can always see the edge, the drop-off into vast oblivion. That’s one of the main things I aspired to do: acknowledge the edges. Also, it has always kind of irritated me how people from big countries assume that distance does not exist here. Maybe driving for one hour on the nice, flat, monotonal interstate is no big deal to a mainlander, but traveling one hour from a coastal village to an inland town along a rough and narrow road is a different experience and involves several changes in landscape for the Trini. If you live here and you want to connect with other people, or you want to grow, you have to be willing to risk a journey either outward across that vast oblivion, or inward across the complicated (tropical rainforest-meets-urban squalor) landscape. So, several of the stories in this book start on the coastline, and then we watch the character undertake such a journey, literally and metaphorically.

The title setting, Pleasantview, is a fictional town set in Trinidad. What were the benefits of writing in a fictional town as opposed to a real one?

A fictional town allowed more license to create. Now, don’t get me wrong—I did use a factual town as a mental model for Pleasantview, but I didn’t confine myself to it.

The last thing a new fiction writer needs is to inadvertently hogtie her creativity with the demands of accuracy. I wanted to save my fact-checking energy for more important aspects of the project.

A fictional town also allows the reader to let their creative guard down. The ability to visualise, imagine and enter the fictive dream is as much a creative skill as writing is. I figured that if the reader is not distracted by too much fact-checking, or preconceived notions, memories of a place he thinks he knows, it would be easier for him to exercise those imaginative skills.

Much of the setting of your stories is established in the dialogue. What tips do you have for writers who want to punch up their settings through dialogue?

Whenever the setting is meant to be a character in a story, it is necessary to make the human characters do double-duty: speak for themselves and for the setting.

How people speak is crucial to establishing a non-traditional environment. The characters’ syntax, their rhythm, their word choice, their instances of code-switching. Taken together, these bits paint a picture of a place and its parameters, e.g. who or what enjoys a position at the high end of society vs. who or what is at the lower end vs who navigates in between.

Brit Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half is a great example of this; I would recommend it as a mentor text.

Don’t sleep on Celeste’s new novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, out now via IG Publishing! While you’re at it, read some of Celeste’s other stories and essays.

Really Digging This

Here’s what I’ve been reading (and, in one case, listening to) and loving lately.

Milk Blood Heat — I have never added a book to my cart faster than I did when I found out that debut author Dantiel W. Moniz is from my hometown of Jacksonville, FL!!!!!! DUUUUUUUU-VAAAAAAAAAAL!

Okay, sorry—just had to get that out of my system.

I can’t fully express how at-home this book made me feel. Set in Northeast Florida, this book evoked that unmistakable, sticky-sweet heat of life in the Sunshine State. The collection contains some of the strongest mood-setting I’ve ever read. I’m excited to see where this fellow Duvallian’s path takes her in what I hope will be a very prolific writing career.

Bandsplain — If you’re a music nerd and love learning about bands with cult followings, you’ll adore this new podcast from Spotify. Host Yasi Salek (a fellow Mors Tua Vita Mea alum!) interviews music journalists and experts about why they love often-misunderstood bands. The show takes a deep dive into the oeuvres of acts ranging from Phish to The Replacements to Insane Clown Posse. There’s even an episode on The Goo Goo Dolls that may have made me change my tune about them—they’ve always been a band that made me roll my eyes and say “barf” before, but after listening to the episode about them, I can now listen to “Slide” and shrug my shoulders with a quiet appreciation like, “Still barf... but also, not really?” IT’S COMPLICATED!

The least cool thing about myself is that I, in spite of never having smoked marijuana in my life, absolutely love Dave Matthews Band. The DMB episode of this show made me feel so seen and had me in absolute stitches thanks to Yasi’s hilarious commentary. (But the Steely Dan ep will be hard to top—apparently David Duchovny is a big SD fan but is an absolute asshole about it?! If you care about that sentence at all, it’s worth a listen.)

Tell me about your lonely victories.

“I finished a new draft of a story I started two years ago and I feel like it’s finally on the right track!” —Zara

“15,000 words into my novel, I changed the perspective. It was third person and now it's first. I could not figure out what was holding me back, but this was the change it needed for me to move forward. The writing is so much stronger now.” —Krystina

I want to hear about your writing achievements, too! Answer my reader questionnaire and I may include your response in future issues of the newsletter.

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Special thanks to Becca Wucker for editing this issue and to Aysha Miskin for designing the Lonely Victories banner.

“Writing alone can give you a very deep sense of satisfaction and lonely victory.” —Greta Gerwig