A Reverse Exercise in Setting the Fictional Stage: Marco Island Mansion Hunting for Lady Joanna Malloy

This past week, in addition to a slew of significantly less glamorous activities (scraping some kind of extra sticky exotic winter berries from the hood of my car, scrubbing the litter box for a feline who makes that Fancy Feast spokescat seem like alley trash, eating Chipotle twice — in the same day), I packed my bags for Florida. It didn’t take me long.

Just bikinis and books for this girl…hell YES.


And once I arrived and settled, I ditched the books for a few hours and went mansion hunting around marvelous Marco Island.

Yes, you read correctly. Mansion. Hunting. Marco. Island. (Can you sense the swagger with which I type?) And no, of course not; it was not for me. It was for Lady Joanna Malloy, the notorious matriarch of the Los Angeles Malloys, ninety-two year-old gold digger extraordinaire, one of the protagonists of my romantic comedy feature currently in pre-production.
(Fingers crossed it sees the light of day, kiddies!)

Channelling my inner Lady Joanna in the T-bird.

(FYI: Lady Joanna Malloy is grand, manipulative, selfish, and devastatingly glamorous. She surrounds herself with anyone who will compliment her, or share their high-end booze. Her favorite sport is “marrying up.” She’s sassy and good-hearted, though she wouldn’t let you know the latter, and she lives on Marco Island, Florida, a place riddled with high end breakfast joints, convertibles as shiny and pastel-hued as Jordan almonds, and the most rheumatologists this side of the Mississippi.)

The task, assigned by my producer, but really, really embraced by yours truly, was to troll around the island and snap some pictures of L.J.’s potential digs.  Maybe the photos would be used to inspire location scouts or future establishing shots, maybe not. Maybe they’d be added to a pitch packet, maybe not. Bottom-line: I was going to be in Florida anyway, and it sounded like an exceptional way to spend an afternoon.
Some candidates for Lady's Joanna's humble abode.

Some candidates for Lady Joanna’s humble abode.

Of course, in the actual screenplay, I describe L.J.’s lavish quarters sparingly. (Too-flowery exposition is forbidden in the medium…only so much space and time…just spit it out!) But this exercise around the island, trying to decide what house really would best match my original vision, or, even better, expand or enhance my original vision, proved to be worthwhile in unexpected ways.

It felt as though I was developing setting backwards.

Not building a fictional house to suit Lady Joanna, but placing her in a real-life standing one, and seeing how SHE’D suit IT. And while this may sound counterintuitive, it prompted me to think about setting in a fresh way.

I don’t know about you, and maybe it’s because of my screenwriting roots, but too often my settings (in fiction first drafts, especially) crop up after the fact. My characters — warm-blooded, three-dimensional, bright-eyed actors so real to me I hear them yell, “Just type what I’m actually saying, Abbey. For godssake, no need to make it up as you go along.” — end up, inevitably, somewhere, and need to do something, and THAT’S when I think, “Well, I better put something in that somewhere.”
At times, it’s genuinely that stupid.
So, I conjure a velour tufted loveseat, or a set of plastic lawn chairs, or a rusty baseball bleacher, or a refurbished church pew, and voila!, fictional asses plop in fictional seats. While I know what mug she prefers for her morning hazelnut cream coffee, and what brand of lipstick stains its rim, I’d be pressed to tell you the color of the kitchen walls that surround her, or, sometimes, even the name of her town.
But if the characters are real, then they must live somewhere real, and show up somewhere real, and one way to achieve this, I’ve recently found, when stuck, is to not craft a real-seeming place around them, but to place them in a truly real place — something that existed before they arrived, “a somewhere” not intended for them at all, as the 1908-crafted little red house I inhabit now was not intended for me at all.
A few examples from this past week:

As I pictured Lady Joanna Malloy occupying one of the mansions with a second-floor balcony straight from the boudoir, I imagined her craning her neck from her newspaper to bitch out the mail carrier who walked on the grass below. (This is no where in the script, but it could be a fun part of her morning routine, no?)

Another one of the mansions had a massive roaming garden, and I wondered if L.J. ever picked the flowers, dropping them in a crystal vase before guests arrived in the parlor? Or did she sit among them, revisiting a faxed copy of her will, scathingly crossing out any grandchild’s name who forgot to call on her twelfth “eightieth birthday.” (L.J. couldn’t think of herself a day over eighty.)

One of the most sprawling homes featured a five car garage which got me thinking, “How would L.J. fill a five car garage?” I instantly pictured a large Caddie alongside a canvas-covered convertible, and two golf carts — none of which she was legally permitted to drive anymore. And how did that make her feel? One woman with four vehicles, and no way to get out. Beyond the second golf cart stood a NordicTrack skier with the old wooden slats. Two decades ago she used it to keep trim, and though she still insisted she hopped on it time-to-time, the cobwebs proved otherwise. And in the corner, sat a box of her third late husband’s college fraternity relics she couldn’t toss, though she didn’t know why — she hadn’t even met him until he was in his fifties.

Here’s the lesson I stumbled upon:
Cornering Lady Joanna into occupying one of these very real homes forced me to explore details of her life that may not have crossed my mind otherwise. We know that in order to create meaningful settings the details we provide should not only contribute to the reader’s ability to picture the backdrop, but also understand the character, absorb subtextual clues, and contribute to the over-all themes of the piece.

Don’t mention a coatrack stands in the corner and never have somebody hang up their coat.

Have them live there, among the setting details, and, when possible, mention the objects in a way that also provides otherwise unexpressed insight into the character. Does Lady Joanna keep a man’s hat angled on the coatrack at all times because it’s her first time living alone and the image of a bare coatrack, or one hosting only her own feminine accessories, depresses her beyond belief? And does that stagnant hat remind her of her father, or one of her late husbands, or Cary Grant?

Employ specific OBJECTS, NAMES, SENSORY DETAILS (don’t forget smell and touch — they’re so often disregarded), and MEANINGFUL ALLUSIONS. Reference the character’s world, reference the real cultural world, reference other works. After all, this is how real people talk, think, and make sense of their existence.

And if you’re stuck, if you happen to hear their voice, see their face, and know they like their apple pie hot and their cherry pie room temperature and their pumpkin pie cold, but their surrounding isn’t “speaking to you,” stick them somewhere new, somewhere real, and see what happens.
(Or take off with a bag of 90% books and bikinis. That seems to help, too.)




Please feel free to share your thoughts here! xo
  1. Ed Cleland says:

    I ALWAYS do sudoku with a pen.


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