Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Making Your Setting Work

Setting is one of those elements that all writers know they need to include in a book, but often it gets either overplayed or totally ignored. I am a big believer in making a setting unique and making it come alive for the reader but doing it in a way that places the reader in the story along with your characters. It isn’t necessarily easy to do, but I always try to make that happen as I write.
Rigid rules for writing can be boring, but here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you deal with setting.
  1. Bring in all the senses.
  2. Don’t overwhelm with setting
  3. Keep it consistent
  4. Be true to your time period and place
  5. Don’t do a detailed description in the first paragraph but get it in there
    Okay, so how do we do all those things?
 Bringing in all the senses has to be the first thing to consider because those senses are what places the reader into that certain location.  Not long ago I was travelling through New Mexico and stopped in a small town and stayed overnight. In the cold October morning I got up to continue my long drive across the state and when I came outside I smelled wood burning. It hit me that was something you never smelled in a big city like Denver, and it took me back to days in my small Colorado hometown. People burned wood regularly and especially in the morning. It’s something you might smell in a mountain town in the winter too, but this was unique in the morning and it was a product of this small town where there were no worries about air pollution. The other thing that hit me was the quiet. There was no sound of a freeway or hum of traffic. I used that in my heroine’s point of view when she realizes how quiet it is – something she wasn’t used to.

The worst way to bring in setting is to overwhelm the reader with long paragraphs that over describe a location or to write it as a laundry list, as though that is what is needed. Instead I like to bring the setting in by letting the character feel where he or she is. Mystery writer John Sandford does a wonderful job of showing cold Minnesota days and nights through his characters and how they are dealing with the frigid temperatures. Consider that as you write your setting. Is she wearing a heavy parka to ward off the morning cold when she goes outside to warm up the car?  Is she sweating in her thin blouse in the steaming Florida afternoon?  How does the setting affect the character? Is her skirt dragging in the mud as she navigates a muddy drive? That all shows setting as part of the action.

Once you have placed your reader in the location you should work to keep it consistent. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have a cool day in the middle of summer. Even that could affect your characters and make them either complain about the weather or get out their winter sweater. But don’t wander away from the time period with slang that is years away from becoming common. I know some of the rules for writing historical romances have loosened when it comes to speech patterns for today’s reader but that doesn’t mean the women of those long ago days said things like, “Shuuut up!” 

That caution also speaks to being true to your time period.  I recently had a student who named a female character a very current and popular name. It sounded great but it was a male name and it had its origins in a certain profession back in the middle ages.  No female would have been named that back then. If you are writing in a certain time period, you should research it and know it well enough to know when you might be making that sort of mistake. Such a misstep can pull a knowledgeable reader out of the story. I’m not that knowledgeable about the Regency period, but I  knew immediately that the name was a mistake.

The final problem goes back to what I mentioned earlier. No one these days wants to begin a book with big long paragraphs of description. Today’s reader is looking for action and you can still combine action with the setting without bringing in long paragraphs that set the scene.  

If he is on the run, where is he running? Through a swampy bog where he the fetid smell threatens to overcome him and he can feel the damp air soaking his shirt? Where reeds are smashing him in the face, or mosquitos are buzzing around him while he listens for the sound of his getaway launch?

Is she waiting to pick up her daughter at school and running the heater in her car while watching for her child’s familiar red coat? And when she sees it, someone else is wearing it. Now she has to zip up her coat as she gets out of the car to go find her child.
Both of those scenarios can use the location and setting as part of the action and you can do that too.  Make it come alive as you would your characters. Take your readers there and let them battle the elements or enjoy the luxuries of your setting.     

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