The Importance of Setting

By Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.

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Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

PatriciaSmiley.com

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

 

AN ALMOST PERFECT NOVEL
 

“As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.”

That’s not a Weight Watchers commercial: it’s a line midway through Margaret Mitchell’s magnificent historical novel, Gone with the Wind.
 
GWTW, as many abbreviate it, is one of my favorite novels, and I have plenty of company. According to a recent Harris poll, GWTW is second only to the Bible in popularity among Americans. And there are a lot of reasons for that: it’s a great story, an easily-digested history lesson, and, for writers, it’s like a master class in storytelling.
First off, consider the storyline and the clear, linear structure: it’s not just a story about a spoiled Southern Belle, or the devastation of war, or the hardships of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or a woman struggling to preserve her family’s legacy. It’s all that—and more.
GWTW carries a timeless theme. In Margaret Mitchell’s own words, “If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under…? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”
And did she ever write about people with gumption! Not only that, she created a cast of complex, fascinating characters. When we first meet main character Scarlett O’Hara, we’re told right off the bat that she’s not beautiful, but “men seldom realized it when caught by her charm. . .” What a way to introduce a character! Scarlett is a study in contradictions: she’s vain, foolish and selfish, but she’s also smart, strong and brave.
Her counterpart, Rhett Butler, comes on the scene as a scalawag, a scoundrel and a cynic. However, as we get to know him, we learn he’s also an idealist, a romantic, and—who’d have guessed it?—a patriot.
GWTW is also a superb history lesson, and Ms. Mitchell delivers it in small, vivid bites, full of specific sensory detail. Writers are advised to “show, don’t tell,” and Ms. Mitchell demonstrates that repeatedly. Readers can almost feel the heat of the flames as Atlanta burns and the clench of starvation that Scarlett endures. The details feel authentic, and they probably are. Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900, and her family lived in Atlanta. Her parents and grandparents probably witnessed the Civil War firsthand and no doubt shared stories with young Margaret.
GWTW is also a spectacular model of what a love story can be. It doesn’t just have a romantic triangle; it has trapezoids and rectangles all over the place, and these are played out in a fascinating narrative.
GWTW is also the model for a modern ending. Not every complication is resolved and tied up with a tidy little bow. Ms. Mitchell left plenty of room for audience participation and interpretation. Did Rhett really not “give a damn?” Will Scarlett get him back? Theories abound.
The novel has a few flaws, of course. The language and style seem out of sync with today’s writing, and some of the dialogue is overblown and even clunky. When Sidney Howard wrote the screenplay, he shortened that famous line I quoted at the start; he removed two words, and Vivien Leigh vowed, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Much more punch in that one.

 

But none of this detracts from the novel’s power to cast a spell. Almost 80 years later, people still care about the book and its characters, and the ambiguous ending sparks many a spirited discussion. What more could an author hope for?