Life Is Fiction: Let Characters Set the Stage

The scene you set is the stage upon which your characters perform. Don’t leave it empty. Make sure that the scene is forever seared into the brain of your readers. I find it easier to set my scenes with characters as I did in my creative non-fiction work, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.

The land was poor. Farmers grew a few peanuts and a little cotton. The land could starve a man. It was worthless. The taxes were more than the crops brought. But qho knew that the Austin Chalk, encased nine thousand feet below Giddings, held great fractures of oil that would turn dirt farmers into millionaires?

I used a character to set the stage.

I used Reinhardt Richter.

Reinhardt's secret lay beneath the streets of Dime Box.

He was a man of the earth, all right. If nothing else, he knew and understood the curious mysteries that lay beneath the Texas farmlands sprawling at his feet. He had studied the good earth and could read the empty landscape as easily as last year’s edition of the Farmer’s Almanac. Every furrow, crop row, creek bottom, bald knob, and ravine was as familiar as the lines in the palm of his hand.

The dirt was an old friend indeed.

It buried, then nourished, his seed, gave him a harvest and grew the sparse grasses that kept his cattle fed, often with sunburnt stalks. Dirt ran shallow above those great folds of Austin Chalk, hiding the complexities of a puzzle that only he and he alone had been able to unravel.

There were those in Lee County who said privately and over a beer or two that Richter was a little different, not quite like the rest of the folks, and not all of them were quite right either.

Reinhardt Richter might or might not have a lot, depending on who happened to be talking down at the City Meat Market in Giddings, but he had his land, and God had given him enough, probably as much as he deserved, and, what’s more, he possessed a secret so vital, so crucial that others dared not believe it even when he slowly and carefully explained it to them.

Why, he said, a bunch of damn good preachers had made a damn good living for a long damn time sermonizing on the fate of mankind that Reinhardt Richter knew was absolute gospel.

But preachers did not really know the source of their anguish and admonitions.

Reinhardt Richter did.

Richter believed that all volcanoes from everywhere in the world came together beneath his farm.

He had devoted himself to demystifying the strange enigma of those boiling masses of fire and brimstone, bristling with fury and damnation far beneath the crust of the earth.  He wasn’t interested in the eruptions or the cinder-cone craters left behind when flames and smoke, dust and ash, lava and magma came bursting violently through those fractures and fissures in a great subterranean vault, flowing like molten molasses down the side of a mountain suddenly rising above a crevice in the earth.

Richter had collected a vast wealth of geologic knowledge unknown to lesser men in the field, and he kept his faith and his studies directed toward places he had never seen and certainly never gone – the deep and hidden sanctuaries far below the earth.

Volcanoes, he said, never lost their fire, and they were all connected – every last one of them – by an inner linking network of tunnels filled with molten lava that spread throughout the netherworld.

They wormed their way like a maze through the hard-rock recesses of the earth, and together they possessed more energy, more radiation, and certainly more heat than the sun.

Thousands of volcanoes from every corner of the globe were emptying their assorted magma into one great ocean of fire and brimstone that was near enough to the surface of the ground for mankind to reach down and touch it.

Only Reinhardt Richer knew the location.

It’s there, he said, nodding as astutely as any scholar would.


He grinned, an old man with an old and wizened grin. In the ground beneath my farm, he said. You can hear them rattle sometimes when the day grows dark.


The gates of hell, he said, and the grin lost its bite.

He was quiet for a moment.

He lowered his head and listened hard as darkness threaded its way across a bald knob and spilled down toward a fence row.

The howling of the condemned will sometimes keep you awake at night, he said.

You hear it?

Every night, he said.

His face turned to stone.

Then again, it might have been the beer.

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