Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Insight When the Setting IS The Story You’re Writing

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

On July 6, 1944, 1000 freshly minted soldiers boarded the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in Indianapolis bound for the south. From there they would be sent to the European theater of World War II. Hours later, in Campbell County, Tennessee, the engine, tender, and four passenger cars careened over the side of the Jellico Narrows. Plunging down the 50-foot gorge and into the Clear River, the 418 Engine crashed into a massive boulder. 

Setting is where your story takes place. 

Settings come in four types: passive, active, functions like a character, and when the setting is the story.

Setting is
  • Time 
  • Place
  • Surroundings
  • Mood
  • Cultural nuances
  • Historical period
  • A backdrop for a story

Setting is the story in books like The Perfect Storm, The Day The World Came To Town, and She Jumped the Tracks.
  • A creative nonfiction that was made into a movie, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger follows the 1991 perfect storm that ravaged North America from October 28 through November 4, 1991. The story follows the ferocity of the weather on boats, their crew, rescue personnel, and their families. 
  • Jim LeFede’s The Day The World Came To Town is the story of Gander, Newfoundland on 9-11 when 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace. LeFede follows how a small town with a population of 10,300 respond to the unexpected arrival of 7,000 guests, many of which do not speak English and all in various stages of feeling confused, hungry, frightened, and angry.
  • Similarly, She Jumped The Tracks by John P. Ascher recounts the largest troop train wreck in the United States. Hundreds of Campbell County residents flocked to the scene to help. They made the first rescues using block and tackle slings to hoist the wounded up the side of the gorge to the road. It often took up to ten men to hoist a body up to the road. Some brought welding torches to free the trapped soldiers. In all 34 men died and 75 were injured. Some survivors went on to fight in North Africa. The wreck left scars on the soldiers, their families, and touched the lives of everyone in Jellico for generations.

At the place in Clear River where the locomotive came to rest is a plaque. In the town square is a memorial with the names of the soldiers who perished in the crash. Adjacent to the hardware store is a home-made museum filled with accounts, news, photos, and memorabilia about the train, the wreck, and the important people whose lives were changed on that fateful day.

The welcome mat is out for those who come to remember, to grieve, and to try to understand. My first visit to Jellico was like a pilgrimage. As I studied the photos and newspaper stories, the elderly gentleman who runs the hardware store approached.

“Do you know someone who was on the train?”

“My grandfather.”

He nodded, understanding.

“How often do people come to your museum?”

“Every week.” He hitched the strap on his overalls. “People come who were on the train. Their families come. They have questions.”

There are four types of settings: passive, active, functions like a character, and when setting is the story.

The people of the tiny town of Jellico are the keepers of the flame. They understand their setting is the story. Within minutes of my arrival, the town’s librarian joined us as well as a photographer from the newspaper who took my photo. The librarian provided a packet of information, and a history DVD. He introduced me to his mother, now a great-grandmother, whose husband had been the teen who watched the train each evening travel the narrows, and who roused the town to rescue the injured and house the survivors.

Authors Sebastian Junger, Jim LeFede, and John P. Ascher wrote books where setting is the story. What stories have you read that center on the setting? Are you writing a story where setting is the theme?


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre Wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of thirty books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, Chasing Sunrise, and The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make. Founder of SingleMomCircle.com, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/peggysuewells

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