The View from Where She’s Standing: Using POV to Inform Setting
by Kim Culbertson
I’ve always loved the immediate quality of Point of View in YA novels. In much of the young adult writing work I do, I use a first person narrator and often write in the present tense. This gives the story a sharp, candid lens through which to see this character’s world. It also creates a focus for the setting – whatever sense of place I develop in a work must be funneled through this specific character’s sensibilities.
When I was writing my first novel Songs for a Teenage Nomad, a critique partner noticed that my main character Calle described a landscape in a way that he felt didn’t fit her voice. She was using words and experiences to describe something that didn’t ring true for what he already knew of her character. He pointed out that this type of description was the author (me) creeping in and it popped him out of the story. He was right, and I tweaked the particular description to be more “Calle-esque.” I’ve taken that advice to heart with each new character I develop. In Instructions for a Broken Heart, Jessa is a heartbroken drama kid traveling in Italy with a school drama group, so what she notices about Italy and about the people she interacts with there must ultimately be channeled through this lens. It will be a bit more maudlin and more sensitive to dramatic elements than a character viewing Italy as a chef or as someone in a more upbeat emotional space.
The lens of the POV changes the shape of the storytelling.
When we write, we must consider this lens at all times when approaching our descriptions of place. In my third novel, Catch a Falling Star, Carter is a stargazer who writes a blog about the sky and how it connects to her life. Thus, the novel has many descriptions of the sky because this is what Carter turns to for comfort and meaning.
Consider this excerpt from my most recent YA novel, The Wonder of Us, told from Abby’s POV:
Eventually, we make our way out of the Uffizi through the Vasarian Corridor, and Matteo’s voice lowers into a dramatic hush. “We’re now truly walking in the footsteps of the Medici family. This corridor linked them to their private palace, the Palazzo Pitti,” he explains. My skin tingles as I study the portraits lining the walls, their faces stern and powerful. This place feels haunted, though I don’t say so to Riya. I tease her about her fierce belief in ghosts, but in places like these I start believing in them, too. These people were powerful and greedy and rich. And some of them, if you believe Matteo’s tour info, died in pretty sketchy ways. Those kinds of spirits hang around. I stop, closing my eyes for a moment, waiting for that history shiver I sometimes get in places like this one.” (p. 38)
In the novel, Abby is a huge history fan, so much of what she notices in this scene will be channeled through the lens of her history interest – noting the proper names of the places, the power of the Medici family, anticipating her “history shiver.” This lens is specific to Abby. Had Riya, the other character in the novel, been the one describing the Vasari corridor, the reader would have most likely learned more about how the people in the portraits were dressed (Riya’s a bit of a clothes horse!). Ultimately, each character brings a position to the storytelling, so it is important when writing to remember this view while describing things.
Anyone who has read my fourth novel, The Possibility of Now, knows I’m a list-maker. Lists can be useful for zeroing in on the specifics of a character as well. Before writing, I often make a list of things my character loves: foods, movies, music, colors, hobbies, etc. I also list things she doesn’t care for: does she despise the taste of mushrooms? (or maybe that’s just me!) In these lists, I decide if she’s an introvert or extrovert, if she’s close to her family, if she’s a dog or a cat person, if she likes to sleep in on the weekends or get up early. Even if you never use any of these items specifically in the work, knowing these details will help inform every sentence you write.
Consider your current Work in Progress (WIP) or a YA novel you’re reading. How does the lens inform the setting?
ABOUT THE BOOKThe Wonder of Us
by Kim Culbertson
Riya and Abby are:
Living on different continents.
Currently mad at each other.
About to travel around Europe.
Riya moved to Berlin, Germany, with her family for junior year, while Abby stayed behind in their small California town. They thought it would be easy to keep up their friendship--it's only a year and they've been best friends since preschool. But instead, they ended up fighting and not being there for the other. So Riya proposes an epic adventure to fix their friendship. Two weeks, six countries, unimaginable fun. But two small catches:
They haven't talked in weeks.
They've both been keeping secrets.
Can Riya and Abby find their way back to each other among lush countrysides and dazzling cities, or does growing up mean growing apart?
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ABOUT THE AUTHORKim Culbertson is the award-winning author of the YA novels Songs for a Teenage Nomad (Sourcebooks 2010), Instructions for a Broken Heart (Sourcebooks 2011), Catch a Falling Star (Scholastic 2014), The Possibility of Now (Scholastic 2016), and The Wonder of Us (Scholastic 2017). Much of her inspiration for her novels comes from the work she’s done as a high school teacher since 1997. In 2012, Kim wrote her eBook novella The Liberation of Max McTrue for her students, who, over the years, have taught her far more than she has taught them. She currently lives in Nevada City, CA, with her husband and daughter.
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