Out here in the small towns of southeastern Illinois—these Podunk farming towns where we’re eager to burst out of our teenage years and into our adult lives—the nights belong to the young. It’s 1974, and I’m eighteen. We’re on the cusp of spring—that awkward time in early March in the Midwest when it can be shirt-sleeve weather one day and cold and snowy the next. Highway 250 runs from my hometown east to Bridgeport and then on to the county seat, Lawrenceville, where my friends and I have come to watch the semi-final games in the regional state high school basketball tournament.
The earth has thawed, and the highway is littered with mud from the tires of farm trucks and oil field trucks that have come from the wet fields and the gravel roads. Soon tractors will sink plows into that ground, and farmers will sow soybeans and corn. The fields of winter wheat are already green. Nights, the lanterns on fishermen’s john boats dot the lake at Red Hills State Park. The flares at oil pumps flicker on the prairies and in the woodlands. The lights on the towers at the Texaco Refinery continue to burn on the southern edge of Lawrenceville. Here in the heartland, as spring nears, we feel a stirring. We’re restless, we’re eager. After winter’s seclusion, we’re ready for something to happen.
I wrote these lines to remember what it felt like to be that age in that place where I was eager for someone to love me. That was the night Cathy and I first began to pay attention to each other. I wrote about the place, and the early spring weather, and the this and the that to immerse myself in memory but also to use setting to link to action. We’re usually very good with the clarity of what happened, but sometimes we neglect the atmosphere or mood that provides a backdrop for the events of our narratives. In other words, we can use the feeling of a particular setting and time period to underscore or create the actions our characters take. It’s really a cause-and-effect relationship. Because we lived in this place at this time, certain events became possible.
So, what are your places? Where have you set your narratives? Choose the details that will create the atmosphere you need to convince your readers that what you claimed happened, really did.