Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hey! Where are we?

Setting. That Place where the book sends you, where -- if the author is fortunate and talented -- you want to stay. It's vivid and evocative and necessary to the story.

If you're a writer, one of the things you learn is how to create a setting that serves as a vehicle for visual and emotional impact, that helps define characters, that subtly influences the opinion of the reader.

If you're a reader, stick with me. This isn't just about writerly tips, but about how understand a bit more of what the writer does can add to your enjoyment of their work.

When author Joyce Yarrow talks about setting, she talks about the "Place of Place." It has been inspirational to her body of work. She bought a ticket and followed her P.I. protagonist from New York to Moscow, and from that experience populated her novel Russian Reckoning with fascinating characters as well as evocative surroundings. 

Author Jeanne Matthew as purchased several tickets -- from Austrailia to Norway to Greece and more -- and used the knowledge she gained to give purpose and depth to all her characters, not just her cultural anthropologist protagonist.

Kait Carson stays closer to home with her Florida-based novels, using setting as a character that can turn from benign and beckoning to dangerous. Her characters must learn to cope.

Author Lisa Stowe pulls the setting even closer -- within the confines of a valley in the mountains of Idaho -- to build tension and danger while showing the reader the worth of her characters. 

These authors (click on their names to find out more about them and their work) all make setting do "double duty" by being a character in and of itself, by showing aspects of their characters that make them more real to the reader, and to influence the opinion of the reader. 

Yes, we're a sneaky lot. We use sight, sound, touch and smell to access the reader's emotional triggers and draw them to a character or push them away. Dialog and action can sometimes be too obvious or overused.

So, how do we do it? I'll tell you my process. The authors above aren't much different -- I know because I've talked to them all about this very subject. 

I start with each scene and ask myself what it should accomplish. Are the characters in that scene brave, bored, excited, in love, frightened? A combination? Are the words coming out of their mouths truth? When I can answer that question for each character, I can then decide how to let the reader know. Their reactions to their environment can help me do that. When Thea walks into the cavernous archives at the Burke Museum (Levels of Deception), we learn a lot about her by her overwhelmed reaction and then resolve to figure out how to accomplish her task. Oh, and by the way, the reader has also been handed a gift: the scene is a foreshadowing the nature of the conflict yet to come and how Thea will tackle it. Cool, huh?

I can also use setting to show a character's comfort or discomfort level. Every time Thea goes to the barn and methodically goes through her riding routine we are reminded of how she reestablishes her own sanity. Paul Hudson feels at home getting his hands dirty on a paleontology dig. One wouldn't expect him to be comfortable in a billionaire's home. However, when we see him there we also see how he's comfortable enough in his own skin to not be overly impressed or be swayed from his goal. Good for him. We like him for that!

A character's "world view" is going to be reflected by their interaction with setting. Someone whose work, traditions and habits center around, for example, roaming the city streets in the week hours is going to have very different observations and feelings than a character whose work and habits have him frequenting the servant's domain in Downton Abbey -- even if they are both up to no good. 

Setting can show us a character's strengths and weaknesses, comfort and discomfort, motive, desires ... all without a single "tell". If you're a writer, make setting work for you. As a reader, you can smile when you catch the author being clever. A good writer won't mention anything that doesn't have a purpose. Setting is one of those things.

I highly encourage everyone, be you reader or both reader and writer, to check out the authors I've mentioned. They are talented women with wonderful stories, all there for your enjoyment. Catch them at being clever!


  1. Setting is one of the hardest characters to lasso. It can't talk, and it has to work. You have done a great job of showing how it works in practice. And thanks for citing me.

    1. I agree it definitely is a hard character to lasso! It takes time and practice to figure out how to make full use of setting without hitting the reader over the head with it. It's a bit like using visceral reactions -- a little goes a long way. Beyond that we get into flowery prose and whatever that award is (can't remember the name) for bad writing!

  2. Setting is certainly something that I like to incorporate into my own work. And it does take time to get it sorted right.

    1. The current accepted style is so different than the old classics. Someone (wish I could remember who) speculated that because people didn't travel much "way back when" that descriptions were appreciated for their ability to depict, in detail, landscape, houses, furnishings and so on. Modern readers won't put up with that!

  3. Excellent post. Setting is important in my stories too and I have to be careful not to over describe yet still give the flavor. Mary Buckham's Setting books are a great help too.

    1. Thank you, Kate! Yes, I love the settings in your stories -- very vivid! I would recommend Mary Buckham's setting books to anyone. She's brilliant!