Location, Location, Location by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

In many novels and even short stories, location acts almost like a character. A great setting sets the stage for greater challenges whether it be physical places (Mt. Rushmore/North by Northwest), climatic as in climate (hurricanes/Key Largo or Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival), or the local natives (from Tarzan’s Africa to the characters on Hollywood Blvd.)
For a short story, pick an easily understood setting because it needs less description; a dilapidated factory vs. a giant industrial firm making computer components for the military weapons used in…. If you get too technical, you will lose your audience and use up your word limit.
Get most of your facts right about places you only visit on the Internet; some readers are finicky about accurate descriptions of locales. If in doubt, fictionalize your locale. All the research you do will change your perception of that area even though you won’t use every bit of information that you discover. But your understanding of a region will color the entire story whether it is the incessant rain, blistering heat or rugged rocks.

Description of settings can educate the reader, but don’t get too detailed. Too much description stops the action. Some settings act as a general background. A short description such as: the local pub, conjures up a picture in the reader’s mind so you don’t have to go into elaborate detail. Some word pictures set the era and mood like the longer descriptions used by Anne Perry in her description of Queen Victoria’s England. The type of book and the mood you want to achieve should dictate the length of your descriptions.
Setting denotes the background of the character living there. A person living in a penthouse and running a huge corporation has a different outlook on life than does a guy living in a garage apartment working in a filling station. Whether you are describing a residence or a business, a character from one economic background will view the same setting through his or her own eyes. Where one person sees an efficient, profitable corporation, another will see it as a greedy, industrial monolith.
Setting also tells us how much time has passed (After two days a thick layer of dust covered every surface.)
If your story gets bogged down with too much description and it starts sounding like that travel log, describe those locations through dialogue. It will set the scene and add information from a particular character’s POV, so you not only see the surroundings, but you know how that character feels about it. Different characters can view settings differently depending on his or her personal perspective. (A woman in love can smell the flowers in the park, while her friend who just lost her job can see the wad of gum on the sidewalk.)
Use descriptions (sight, sound, smell) of locations to evoke an emotion, reaction, or establish mood. (A scummy swimming pool tells the reader the motel is seedy.) Setting can also take reader into another world (Tony Hillerman’s Indian reservation, Dick Francis’s racetrack.)
Remember “Chekov’s Gun” story. Don’t put something in a scene if it’s not going to be used. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” (Anton Chekov 1889.) This tactic was used constantly in Murder, She Wrote.The camera always zoomed in on the “clue” about eight minutes into the show. During the last seven minutes Jessica Fletcher would recall that “clue” and solve the case. You always knew that clue would make a reappearance before the final credits rolled. The “clue” was part of the setting.

Treat your locations like a character. They have a lot to say.

16 thoughts on “Location, Location, Location by Gayle Bartos-Pool”

  1. What a great, down-to-earth, lesson on how to use setting in our stories. A very good insight for newbies as well as a reminder to seasoned authors. I like the illustrations you used too from books and films. Thanks!

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  2. Marilyn, I'll use real places, but I print off a Google Map or Map Quest map just to make sure I make the right turns. And when I can use the street level feature, I can actually “look” around the area to see what it looks like without driving to Florida or Mexico. Even where I lived in France is on MapQuest now.

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  3. Gayle, this is a great post by someone who practices what she preaches. Your settings are always vivid and accurate, whether it's a race track in a fictional town (wink wink) or the Bonaventure Hotel. Setting can make or break a story–thanks for the good examples.

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  4. You're so right about locations being almost like a character. A character can mean a person, but character also means atmosphere, which the right location can provide. To be able to describe a place vividly but economically takes skill, something we should all work toward. You've always excelled at that. Great advice and examples, Gayle.

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  5. Great post, Gayle, and so true. Every one of my books in the R. A. Huber series is set on a different location. I make a point of visiting the locales I write about in person, giving me a good excuse to go on trips.

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