A few weeks back, a wonderful letter from Bill Thornton to his sister Kate Thornton, was posted here at Writers in Residence talking about setting, characters, and much more. His letter was eloquent and on the mark (I think!). In the same time period I wrote out some thoughts on setting for the Public Safety Writers (PSWA) newsletter. And most recently, Gayle Bartos-Poole added some very smart how-to thoughts in Location, Location, Location.And since I (clearly in good company!) also think setting is so important, I thought I might take the topic to my personal level.
When trying to figure out what to do writing-wise, I rely upon what I like to read—what pulls me into a novel and what keeps me reading. Character and Setting are always my first thoughts,with all the elements Bill and Gayle talked about coming into play. Of course, story is also important. However, I might have in my hands the most intriguing story every written, but if I don’t like the protagonist, or at a minimum, care about what happens to him or her, I won’t read the book. And equally important, if I’m not mentally or emotionally “taken away”,once again, the book won’t get read. So for me, it is so true. Setting done well is a key ingredient—actually, an essential ingredient—for an enjoyable reading experience.
Adding to those thoughts for my own personal writing, there’s the additional aspect that setting has also been my story inspiration. Whether walking through a lush green evergreen forest in the Pacific Northwest, or mesmerized by the sight of long abandoned structures, silhouetted against lower Sierra foothills by a brilliant sunset, or mentally captivated by a rundown mini-mart, neglected and lonely in the Mojave desert, or standing in awe, taking in the expansive view from a Michigan Avenue high-rise apartment of Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. Add to the list a few more setting inspiration points like abandoned A-frames, Quonset huts, mining caves, defunct swimming pools—the list goes on; all with tales to tell, stories fanciful or real—all inspiration.
Which brings me back around to what I like to read. The authors I consistently read with anticipation and joy are the ones that have memorable characters that take me to a place—setting—I don’t want to leave. A place where I’m sorry I have to leave at book’s end. Developing “setting” as best we (I) can, I think is well worth the time and effort. Challenging, I think. But aiming for a strong sense of place, I also think, is a key ingredient to the “art and craft” of storytelling. Bill and Gayle talked so eloquently about setting I hesitate to add my little list. Nonetheless, here it is:
- – Fully developed, setting adds the underlying layer for a story—the glue so to speak that holds everything together. (Maybe not the best metaphor, but similar to the background in a photo.) It establishes a protagonist and reader firmly on the time-space-continuum, and in a particular place in the universe.
- – Where a protagonist “is,” determines in a multitude of ways, what and how characters face and deal with the dilemmas thrown their way. And what physical items and constraints are available, not only in daily life, but at hand to maybe save a life? Or solve a crime?
- – The comparison between a protagonist’s current setting versus ones from the past can add an emotional level—e.g., guilt from deeds in a past setting, hope for the future from where they are now, even being part of their understanding of the present.
- – Enables the reader to experience through words and a character’s eyes, the tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feel of your protagonist’s world. Emotional and visual pictures readers can’t forget. (I have several such pictures from books I’ve read that I will never forget.)
- – Setting is a key way to show personalities—how they deal with their environment. If a character can see, feel, love or hate a desert, a lake, a city, or???—that response to the landscape can be a key for a reader to love or hate a character.
A picture I took out my kitchen window, that along with rereading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins inspired my latest book.