The Closed Setting

Elizabeth asked me if I was researching Las Vegas weddings because Nick and Nita were going to get married there, and I posted a long reply that made me realize that they weren’t going to because that would disrupt my closed setting.  And I like closed settings, I think they add immeasurable to a story.  This is one of the many reasons I love Argh: you ask questions and in answering them I figure out what I need to do.  And in this case, I need the claustrophobia of a closed setting, so, no, Elizabeth, they’re not getting married in Las Vegas.  There’s a bullet dodged.

So what’s a closed setting

 It’s a geographically limited setting that the characters can’t or won’t leave.  It’s a small town (Eureka), it’s an island (And Then There Were None), it’s a business (Office), it’s a house (The Haunting of Hill House), it’s a very small country (thinking Leverage’s “Let’s steal a country” here), it’s any setting where the characters cannot go somewhere else because the problem is HERE.  Bob and I had an argument about this on Wild Ride; he wanted Ethan flying all over the world. I said, “They’re trapped on the island, the problem is on the island, if he starts flitting sround, the tension goes.”  Obviously I won that one, but in general, Bob likes global stories, the whole world in peril, a huge canvas  to work on.  I want my characters as limited as possible, in a crucible setting and under a time lock, life and death in my version of Austen’s two inches of ivory.

The time lock is key to a closed setting, I think, because it increases the pressure and can help define the space.  I was thinking of Around the World in Eighty Days, which you’d think would be a global story, except Phineas Fogg cannot go anywhere, he has to stick to his itinerary to make the trip in eighty days, so that itinerary becomes a kind of closed setting due to the time lock.  I think the real key to time in a closed setting comes from the nature of the conflict: the problem is here, the problem is pressing, we don’t have TIME to go anywhere else because this mother is going to blow up at any minute.  So confined space + time lock + high stakes conflict = successful closed setting.  Which means no Las Vegas wedding. 

To get back to Nita’s closed setting, Nita is dedicated to her island, not comfortable off it.  Nick is there just to solve a problem and then go back to Hell, but he won’t leave until he’s fixed things.  The demons on the island can’t leave because there’s iron at the bridge and airport.  The humans on the island don’t want to leave because it’s their home.  At the climax, Nita goes to Hell, but she does it to save her island and then she says, “See ya” and goes back to Demon Island because that’s where she belongs.  I like the fact that they’re trapped there by both physical things and by emotional ties, that the island itself is a motivation.  Plus I like islands.  

Here’s the answer to Elizabeth’s question that made me think this through:

“I’m trying to figure [the wedding problem] out. There’s a logical (not romantic) reason they would, but it takes them off the island and I don’t want that, I like closed settings, and I’m not sure it doesn’t take too much pressure off Nita in some ways. OTOH, if she’s married to him and then he starts cycling through different lifetimes, that adds pressure. If she doesn’t bring up a problem, he doesn’t have to suggest that as a solution, plus it does solve a problem she has, and she should have as many problems as possible to keep fueling the story. Right now, she brings up the problem to refute something he’s saying, not to ask for help, and he says, “Oh, I can fix that, I’ll marry you.” And that would fix her problem. OTOH . . .

“It’s a plot thing. I just have to figure out how to negotiate it. I should look at Kentucky, too. At one time, you could elope to Kentucky and not have a waiting period (which my college roommate did and I was her maid of honor so I know that one for sure), but I have no idea if that’s still true. The problem with Las Vegas is that I’d have to deal with Las Vegas, and that takes too much emphasis off Demon Island.

“I wonder if there’s a way I could establish a no-waiting period on Demon Island. They’re in New Jersey so they can’t contravene state law, right? That’s a three-day waiting period. Of course, if they had to apply for a license on Demon Island and then try to keep it a secret from her parents (impossible) that could ADD pressure. Hmmmmm.”

I mention all of this because I think setting often gets kicked down the road as a default, but I think setting is very important in escalating a plot and shaping characters in a story.  So now I’m sure it would be a major mistake to send Nick and Nita to Vegas.  Nope, not going to happen.  The closed setting is too important.

ETA: Since people are confused about where Las Vegas came front, I posted the discovery draft of the scene:

Discovery Draft: Why I Was Researching Las Vegas

49 thoughts on “The Closed Setting

  1. Questions: How many Earth days has Nick been on Demon Island when they have to get married? Is the person at city hall who would file their paperwork friend or foe or neutral? If that person isn’t an active enemy of Nita or Nick, could he/she be persuaded to backdate the application or does that mess with Nick’s timeline? Also, does it have to be a governmentally legal marriage or could it be like a hand-fasting/broom-jumping ceremony-type thing where they declare intent in front of a crowd?

    Also (pretending to be indignant here), I got married in Vegas and it was lovely! License acquired at 1:00 a.m., married at 1 p.m., sang Itsy Bitsy Spider, complete with hand gestures, with my soon-to-be 4-year-old niece in the limo on the way.

    1. Answering the Las Vegas question first: The problem about Las Vegas as a setting is that it’s overwhelming. You can’t take characters to Vegas and have them not notice that it’s VEGAS. It’s the most in-your-face city on Earth. And it doesn’t add a thing to the story while breaking the setting. So it cannot be part of the book. I’m sure your wedding was lovely (g).

      Nick arrived on Monday, met Nita early Tuesday morning in the bar, is back in Hell by Saturday midnight. I think it’s Wednesday morning at breakfast that he offers to solve her problem by marrying her, so they’d have to get that license fast.

      The marriage would be for legal purposes, so it has to be completely by the book. It doesn’t matter if they have a friend in the registrar’s office, word will get out. In a small community, word ALWAYS gets out, especially if it’s about people with high profiles who have been doing things that are getting attention.

      1. If you’re in New Jersey then maybe a boat out to International Waters at 200 miles? Or if (I somehow thought Michigan) you’re close to the border, maybe Canada? But I don’t know the rules in Ontario or Quebec.

        Was applying for a license in British Columbia and a wait until we could go back and pick it up, at least in the small town we were in.

      2. Delaware has a one day waiting period. Maryland has a two day waiting period.

        But if you want to trip Nick up – Maryland used to be famous for no waiting period. In 1930s movies, they’re always eloping to Elkton to get married. So he could be basing his plans on something which used to be true but the laws changed.

  2. I think 3 days is great. So many shenanigans could happen in three days that add further pressure, and you can have all sorts of jokes about mythological examples of 3 days.

  3. I just checked and there are many states that have no waiting period and no blood tests to get married: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idado, Hawaii, Colorado and a ton more. New York requires blood testing for sickle cell anemia for African Americans and Hispanic which seems a bit racist to me since there are other health issues that other races have that are revealed by blood tests.

    1. Re. Colorado: My ex and I got married at the DMV in Colorado Springs. Basically, sat at this desk together, put up a hand and swore we weren’t related, and then signed the paperwork. No appointment. Didn’t even need witnesses. No vows, etc. (/rant on…. which is why it always annoys me when online commenters hear that people are considering divorce and they go off on some rant about how “you promised in sickness and in health… blah blah blah” – I want to point out to everyone single one that you have no idea what they did or didn’t promise. /rant off)

      The only minor hiccup was that it was cash (or check maybe?) only and we didn’t have any so we had to run and get some first.

  4. Setting is critical. If it’s not believable or structured in a way we need to believe the unbelievable it’s a story out of place.

    Lawks, I go that makes sense. I’m sinus-y with the accompanying head ache.

    As for marriage.

    What about handfasting? The islanders might have Scottish roots.
    There’s Hindu walking around ceremonial fire and application of vermilion.
    There’s Greek Orthodox walking around ceremonial table.
    So many to choose from.

      1. I’m a Wiccan high priestess and when one of my group wanted me to officiate at her (legal, formal, non-Pagan family invited) wedding, I got certified online. I have since officiated at about a dozen legal weddings, including one last summer for a friend’s daughter.

        ANYONE can get certified online to be a legal officiant. It takes a couple of weeks, that’s all. (Mind you, it is best if they are serious and take the office seriously, but anyone can do it.)

          1. He has to be back in Hell by midnight Saturday. I’m pretty sure this scene is Wednesday morning. It takes three days to get a license in NJ.

          2. They both have to sign it. Thinking back to my marriage license which was in Texas a million years ago, we both had to sign.

  5. Did I miss a draft post? When did you mention Los Vegas? Or married? Seriously, it’s very worrying.

    1. You have to religiously check back ob each post to make sure you don’t miss any conversations. I missed it too: but Jenny’s quoted her reply here – someone had picked up on the fact she mentioned researching Los Vegas weddings. It’s a full-time job keeping on top of all the threads on Argh.

  6. I love a good closed setting. Exactly what you said. It’s a crucible. Go, Jenny!

    I’ve done it twice: airplane (Death Flight, about to be released) and an obstetrics room in a hostage taking (Stockholm Syndrome).

    But I do vary that with an open setting so that Hope can run around a bit–who wants to be locked up all the time? That’s the thing with a series character. It gets ridiculous if they’re always jetting around to save the world *or* perpetually locked up.

    We all face our foibles, like Louise Penny alternating her series in and out of Three Pines because to have a murder that often in a small village would raise eyebrows.

    1. Lol re Three Pines, what about Murder She Wrote with Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove. A friend used to joke that, “that lady needed to do some serious cleansing rituals/exorcism/etc.”

      1. I don’t feel quite the same about Oxford, either, what with Morse and Lewis and Endeavour; plus there’s always the risk of being whisked through to an alternate universe on the ring road (à la Philip Pullman).

        1. I always wondered what villain in their right mind would base their nefarious schemes in Sleepyside-on-Hudson. Surely, after fifteen or sixteen foiled plots, someone would put the word out that Trixie Belden and her hometown should be avoided.

    2. I remember Ellery Queen used to go Wrightsville on vacation and there’d be a murder and as I remember, toward the end of the series, people started to mutter when he came to town.

  7. Could the island be in Nevada or Kentucky? I mean it’s pretty isolated from the rest of New Jersey, so it might work? Except the weather in Nevada… where is Kentucky? What’s the climate like? How about if Demon Island had wedding tourism like in Nevada? Oh, how about if they had a thing where as a special local thing you got married and it wasn’t actually valid for the state’s three days, but you don’t have to do anything else? So it’s like a “you can change your mind, but if you don’t it becomes real at a time” which would be neat for plot, potentially.

  8. He’s a demon, right? One that can open portals? Open a portal to a chapel in Vegas, walk in, sign the papers, walk back through the portal. Make the portal open in the restroom or something, so that it’s an entertaining portal. I spent a long time once working on a plane landing at an airport because Customs, and I finally realized that no one was ever going to care if I hand-waved Customs. A magic demon should be able to bop back in time three days and get some paperwork; or bribe someone at City Hall/twist someone’s arm to backdate the paperwork; buy it online from the Church of Satan; lots of options. Getting bogged down in practical realities for a book with demons seems like a wasted opportunity. That said, I’ve been working hard to avoid all Nita posts, (I would rather read the book someday than read blog posts about it now), so obviously you might have reasons for not doing all of the above. I have found though that when I’m getting bogged down in practical, logistical details, I’m probably just going to wind up cutting them all in the end, because they just slow down the story.

    1. He’s a dead human, not a demon, and yep he can open Hellgates, but it’ll still open the setting. I’m coming around to the three days things.

  9. If you are primarily concerned about the legality of the marriage, don’t you have to show a valid birth certificate and/or passport to get a marriage license? How can Nick meet this requirement?

      1. Can he forge a marriage license and then just slip it into the official files? (As far as I can tell, nobody ever checks those things unless there is an issue of some kind.)

        1. Again, then I’m spending story real estate on setting that up. I think I either cut the whole idea of the marriage or I do it all on the island and use getting the license and people finding out as a complication in passing. That is, they never deal with it because they’re up to their asses in alligators, but people keep mentioning it.

  10. I have my doubts about applying Aristotle’s unities to novels, which he’d never met, but you make a good case.

    [Now-irrelevant footnote: Kentucky still has a no-waiting period, or so I deduce from the number of out of state couples with no local ties whose marriage licenses are listed monthly in the local small town paper. Jo Walton, the only islands Kentucky has are in the Ohio River, or possibly some man-made lakes. I am, however, lobbying for Kentucky just so that Kim Davis could refuse to issue a marriage license to the Devil….]

  11. Sounds just like Georgette Heyer’s characters who have to acquire a special license in order to get married without the time delay and hoorah.

    I live in a very small town. I figure that our town clerk, named Jenny, would process the Nita and Nick’s paperwork immediately, and, if needed, a local doctor would do instant blood checks.

    We moved here two years ago. When my son visited from Poland and didn’t have proof of residency in order to register to vote, Jenny said, “I know your mother. That’s enough.”

    I tried to post this earlier, but I can’t find it on the blog.

  12. Thanks for mentioning Bob Mayer’s wish to send Ethan all over the place in Wild Ride.

    One aspect of that story that strikes me as odd is when Ursula has a torture chamber set up and waterboards Ethan. The hidden rooms with their contents and the guys who helped her (I think they’d been introduced in the beer hall) didn’t jive with the rest of the surroundings for me.

    On the other hand, if this scene was a trade off for taking Ethan out of the park, it makes more sense to me.

    1. I forget where Bob wanted to send him (it was a long time ago) but I bet that was one of them. I think we argued about the waterboarding, too, but I can’t remember, and in that case, it was part of Bob’s plot so he got to do whatever he wanted.

      Come to think of it, Shane went a lot of places in Agnes, and Agnes stayed at the house. It’s a miracle we ever wrote a book.

      1. I was thinking that about Shane and Agnes. Agnes really doesn’t move at all—she only leaves the island when she is carted off to jail, we don’t even see her shop for food.

        It works because it makes Agnes this magnetic force that Shane keeps coming back to no matter where he goes.

        1. The time frame of that book is so short, I don’t think she has time to shop for food. Plus Shane takes her list and gets what she needs. But yep, that was all on purpose. Agnes is the center of the book and she stays centered in that house.


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