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

 

Free WRITING For Free

WinR profile picJackie Houchin is a Christian writer, book reviewer, and retired photojournalist. She writes articles and reviews on a variety of topics, and occasionally edits manuscripts. She also dabbles in short fiction. “I’m a wife (52 years in Feb/2016), a mom, and a grandma (of adults, sigh!). I enjoy creating Bible craft projects for kids; growing fruits, flowers, and veggies; and traveling to other countries. I also adore cats and kittens and mysteries.”    Follow Jackie on Morning Meditations and Here’s How it Happened

What comes to your mind when you think of free writing?

Do you think of finding a word, idea, scene or photo, and putting your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and… writing whatever comes to mind? (I did that once about salt from a photo of a vintage restaurant saltshaker, giving the condiment a personality. It turned out pretty cool, I thought!)

Or does free writing mean penning something “on spec” which is a fancy way of saying that no money is involved. Or, if you are a newbie writer, maybe you volunteer your services for articles, blog posts, interviews, fillers, etc., for experience and to accumulate “clips.”

Freeing Willie

“Free Writing” – that mind-over-matter, staring-into-space writing that begins with a prompt – is often used by writers and novelists who experience writer’s block, as a way to prime the pump. However it happens, once you get your creative juices or muses moving, your other WIP seems to suddenly take on new life. (And no, my muse’s name is not Willie!)

FREE writing3This kind of free writing invigorates your thought process, sparks ideas that catch fire and burn down forests of paper!! (Sorry, I got a little carried away.)

You don’t have to be “stuck” to make use of free writing. Some writers write from a prompt daily in a journal designated for that purpose. Not only does it kick start their writing, but they archive a huge number of ideas in the process to use later. (See a list of websites at the end that feature prompts for writers.)

Don’t write right

Another method of free writing (I love this one and have recommended it often, but no one ever tries it… or at least has told me they’ve tried it) is to use a left/right brain strategy.  (You have to use a pen or pencil for this one.)

Choose a photo, or even an advertisement from a magazine with at least two people in it, and some background. With your dominant hand, write a brief account of what is happening in the scene (other than the obvious ad line). Include background, clothes, colors, expressions, relationship possibilities, etc.

NEXT, switch hands and write about the same scene with your non-dominant hand.  I was told that your brain will notice different details and story possibilities from the “other” hand’s POV. I didn’t believe it, but I tried it. I was amazed! I did it again using a painting of a village scene this time and the same thing happened!

Try it.  Do.  Then email me (or comment below) the results.

Money Ain’t Everything

FREE writing5The other type of free writing that most wordsmiths don’t like to consider, is writing FOR FREE; not charging a fee, gratis, a lot of work for no pay. Some do it for the experience and to get a name and byline which they can later barter. They think of it as a rite of passage, paying their dues, a necessary evil. (Hey, I love clichés.)

But I bet you’ve done free writing and didn’t even realize it. How about that guest blog? (Okay, you pumped your book.) What about being so wowed by a book you just read, you ran to Amazon or Goodreads and posted a glorious review?

Unless your own blog has a commercial aspect, every post there is virtually free.

FREE editing1How about volunteering to critique or edit a friend’s manuscript? (I edit papers by seminary students in Africa and it is very gratifying.) Or mentoring a newbie writer? (I’m doing that for a friend who’s attempting her first memoir.) How about writing a note of encouragement to an author who’s just lost her editor or publisher, or gotten a stinky review?

These kind of projects are definitely in the “feel good” category but they are still writing. They are lucrative in a non-monetary way, and sometimes the payoff is astounding.

The Bottom Line

Writers write… however and whenever, for whomever, and for whatever pay. They write. WE write.

So WRITE FREE and see what happens.

 

Websites with writing prompts: scene setups, situations, words, and photos:

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts – scenes

http://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/ – brief suggestions

https://dailypost.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/365-days-of-writing-prompts-1387477491.pdf – each day

http://www.writingforward.com/writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts/25-creative-writing-prompts –  brief ideas

http://writeshop.com/creative-writing-photo-prompts-imagination/  – photos

http://writingexercises.co.uk/random-image-generator.php – very cool! a new photo prompt with each click of your mouse.

 

Do the Details Matter in Series Writing?

I remember an author on a panel saying that writers MUST get every detail right, from street directions to building descriptions. If not, readers would riot and complain.

I admit I’ve run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn’t catch it. The editor didn’t catch it. Three proofreaders didn’t catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was “just sloppy”. I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn’t thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn’t leave contact information. So, it does happens.

However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren’t going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I’ll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.

In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I’ve discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn’t smoke in another. He also says that he’s never seen  Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away.  The list goes on.

It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn’t hit his radar. I don’t consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.

One of the reasons that these changing details don’t bother me is that they don’t affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object  (Archie’s words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)

I’ve put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels.  Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar  aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters.  I wouldn’t recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.

If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you’ll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered “just sloppy”!