Monday, March 23, 2015

Techniques in Appalachian Fiction: Setting in Gap Creek

In case you haven't been here lately, I'm doing a series on writing techniques used in several Appalachian novels. If you would like to read other posts in this series, click here: Techniques in Appalachian Fiction.

This and the next set of posts will be about techniques in Gap Creek by Robert Morgan (1999).

I would highly recommend this book if you haven't read it. I sat down to read the opening two chapters and ended up getting through a third of the novel in one sitting. I want to stress how fabulous this book is because I'm going to pick it apart a little bit.

What makes the book particularly interesting to me is the author does several things that aspiring writers are told are NOT best practices. (I'm just going to touch on one here and will save the rest for my next posts.)

One of the goals of writing historical fiction is to set the reader in the time and place of the novel and to do it immediately so the reader feels grounded. At the same time, the setting should be revealed in a way that doesn't dump that information onto the reader. The setting needs to be revealed in a measured way, in a way that makes the reader not notice it's being revealed.

In Gap Creek, the narrator does not state the precise setting of the novel in the opening chapters.  It isn't until page 50 that we learn that she had been living in North Carolina and is moving just across the border to South Carolina. Up until that point, it's clear the family had been living in the mountains, but the exact location wasn't spelled out.

What's interesting to me is the narrator is so authentically in her own story that she doesn't (in the first 90 pages at least) name the year. The only clue I have so far, besides the lack of industry and public schools, is the fact that chestnut trees are in the novel. The American chestnut got a fungus that killed pretty much all of these trees in the Appalachian Mountains by about the end of the 1930s. The presence of chestnut trees combined with the fact there's no electricity in the kitchen in the novel tells me it's definitely set before the 1930s. I didn't pick up on any clues about whether it's set before the Civil War or after.

The year of the story is presented as being relative to an event in history that the narrator experienced, Cold Friday. When I looked this up to see if this was a real day or just a day named by the community the girl lived in, I found that there was a day in January 1810 that was named as Cold Friday in the New York Times. But Julie surely wouldn't have access to the New York Times, so I think the Cold Friday is a day in her life, which makes the story all the more personal.

In the "Note from the Author" in the back of the book, the author states, "you do not write living fiction by attempting to transcribe actual events onto the page. You create a sense of real characters and a real story by putting down one vivid detail, one exact phrase, at a time" (329). He goes on to explain that his most important and difficult task was perfecting the voice of the narrator. I think a lot of the violations of best writing practices that I'll discuss in the next posts are done in service of capturing the authentic voice of the narrator.

Have you read this novel?  For those of you who write novels (even science fiction or fantasy, where setting is equally important), do you think you could get away with waiting until page 50 to state the name of the place the characters live in?  Or do you always squeeze the setting into the opening chapters?

Work Cited:

Morgan, Robert. Gap Creek. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. Print.


  1. No. I don't believe I could get away with waiting to set up the place and era in any novel 50 pages later. My critters wouldn't let that happen.

    1. The place was described, but it was the immediate surroundings: the house, the mountainside, the path to the doctor's house in the moonlight. It was actually well done, just done in a way that would be difficult to pull off I think.

  2. Perhaps that was the author wanting the book to remain timeless?
    I usually let the readers know where they are within the first couple pages.

    1. Me too. I think he was trying to truly tell it from the perspective of the narrator, who had no need to explicitly say she was in North Carolina and what the year was.

  3. I have not read this novel, though I've glanced at it wondering if I should give it a go. Sounds like my kind of read. Historical fiction is my absolute favorite genre to read for pleasure.

    1. I was in after the first chapter. Something terrible happens....