Setting matters to me, as I am sure it does to other writers out there who invest time in establishing the background of their stories and characters. Most of my work – both fiction and nonfiction – takes place in Maryland in the United States. As such, I’ve created some rather elaborate settings based closely on the places I frequent.
And sometimes, those places and stories overlap.
In 2013, as I was establishing the plot line of Fossil Five, I created a fictitious town called Jacob’s Landing. I took great care in establishing the town’s proximity to Chesapeake Bay, the tributaries that trickled through the small parcel of land, and the incidents and events that defined its less-than desirable history. In it, I created a few stories that happened under “Fait’s Five Bridges.”
The next year, I started a new novel called Sail Away, also set in the town of Jacob’s Landing. I began to see the benefits of creating a strong setting where multiple stories could be created. I learned this from Stephen King who used his own fictitious Castle Rock town as a backdrop for many of his works of horror.
Fast forward to 2019, and I am working on a new Christmas story for my holiday anthology. In this story, “A Christmas Story in Jacob’s Landing,” I not only use the setting that I have relied on for previous works, I am now having my main characters from this short work bump into some of the characters from my previous works, including Fossil Five.
I find it a delicious challenge to keep the “rules” of previous stories straight while creating new works of fiction within that VW-imagined world. I don’t want to write anything that is going to undermine or discredit what has already been published. It’s like inserting new pieces into a jigsaw puzzle that has already been completed.
This is one of the most basic rules I learned long ago with creating fantasy or science fiction; if you are going to create an imaginary world, you are in charge of creating boundaries and staying within them for the entire work. Whenever you are developing multiple works from the same setting, you must continue to adhere to those boundaries and not conflict with anything already created in that world.
It’s tough, but it’s fun.
Here is the drafted opening of my new Christmas story, due to come out just before the holidays.
“A Christmas Story In Jacob’s Landing”
by Rus VanWestervelt, Draft 1
None of this was what he imagined – or hoped – it might be.
Travis stood outside the cabin, leaning against the wet railing that was now warped, a twisting 2 x 6 board that had never been properly sealed. He could feel the moisture in the wood seep through the bulky cableknit sweater as he shifted his arms, and he stared through the bare deciduous trees at the Chesapeake Bay’s brackish waters. They were choppy, and the strong winds brought a swirling mix of scents from the bay and the woods between them: an aromatic touch of fresh, sweet sap tainted with the decaying odors of the detritus on the forest floor.
It conjured the memorable scent of a peculiar perfume that he longed to forget. It was, in fact, the reason he was here, nearly 100 miles away from his home in Baltimore County, close to the Pennsylvania line.
He was here to forget.
He played with the paper crane in his hand, folding the wings again and again as he watched a pair of egrets standing still in the water, waiting for their next meal to swim by.
Even here, on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay in the small town of Jacob’s Landing, he could not escape her.
Inside the cabin, his phone began to ring.
He threw the paper crane over the deck railing and watched it sputter its way to the ground, landing on a twig, its beak buried under a damp oak leaf. Pushing away from the railing, he went inside, the warm air of the fire greeting him immediately.
“This is Travis,” he said, answering the call.
“I know you are probably surrounded by a bunch of unopened moving boxes,” the voice said on the other end. It was his editor at the Jacob Herald, Stanley, who was also good college friend of his father. “I’ve got a gun-control rally that’s starting under the Bridges. My go-to for these kinds of events has got up and went. Any chance you can pick it up? It’s a hell of a first assignment to introduce you to Jacob.”
Travis moved closer to the fire, hearing him chuckle on the other end of the line.
“Not wasting a moment, are you? Everything my dad said about you is dead-on right.”
“Did he also say that I was the more talented, the most handsome, and the quickest to land a date back when were at St. Mary’s?”
Now it was Travis’ time to laugh. “He said that you would say all that, so I guess you are right.”
“I love that man,” said Stanley.
“Don’t we all.” Travis cleared his throat. “Do you need pictures too? Or do you have a photog already assigned?”
“If you accept the job, then the photographer has been assigned. You.”
Travis stepped closer to the fire. He just could not warm up. “I accept, but it will take me a few minutes to find the box where my camera is buried.”
“Take your time,” said Stanley. “Rally starts at 4. Find Morgan Carter. She’s your main contact. Sweet girl that is born and bred Jacob. She’ll have all the answers – and a few good save-the-world quotes that will spark a little traction online, I’m sure.”
Travis bristled as he started opening boxes, looking for his camera gear.
“I don’t have any cares about the online chatter,” he chuffed. “No time for that.”
“That’s our bread and butter, son. Deny that, and we lose our advertising.”
He pulled a well-loved Nikon D300 camera from a box, and put his eye up to the viewfinder.
“When do you want the story?” asked Travis.
“8:30 tonight if you can. I’d like to include it in our 10 p.m. online edition.”
“Make it 600. Not too many book readers here in Jacob.”
Travis hung up the phone and scrolled through the last few pictures on the camera’s memory card. It was of their last trip together to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. when the leaves were at their autumnal peak.
He selected them all and then deleted the batch. Just to be sure they were gone, he formatted the card.
Travis turned and walked out on to the deck, still clutching the old camera as if it were an extension of his right hand. He aimed at the two egrets, still waiting ever-patiently for food, when he fired off a few shots of the birds in mid-strike.
He studied one of the pictures on the camera’s display panel, zooming into the egret’s beak and the squirming fish. “Looks like the striped killifish are still running,” he said aloud, saving the image.
No, nothing was as he had thought that it might be, and that was okay. He turned off the camera, grabbed his notebook and keys, and headed out the door to meet a woman named Morgan under the Fait’s Five Bridges.