Thursday, January 28, 2010

Setting: A Living Element with Fran McNabb

Thank you, Cara, for inviting me to the Seekerville Blog. Over the years, I’ve met many of your fellow Seekers at conferences and think you are part of a wonderful group of ladies.
I’ve chosen to say a few words about “Setting.” I know the subject has been written about on this blog, but it’s a favorite subject of mine so I hope I can approach it in a different way. Plus, it’s a great way for me to work in the subject of my newest Avalon release ON THE CREST OF A WAVE, February 2010.

First, setting is not a stagnant element that we label at the beginning of our manuscript, then forget about. Setting should an active, formative part of your story and your characters. Your characters are who they are because you’ve chosen a particular place and time in history for them. They become the product of this time and place.

Let’s look at a character we all know: Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. With Scarlett O’Hara’s fist raised to the sky, she cries, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Do you picture her saying that in a back alley of an inner city? Of course not. Scarlett would not have said or even thought to say those words had she not been raised as a child of the Old South prior to the Civil War. Tara and the life she lived on that plantation formed who she was and how she viewed the world. She could not have been Scarlett at any other time in history.
When we get into the POV of our characters, especially those set in other periods of history, we have to understand the period in which they lived. Even though I didn’t write anything as grand as “Gone with the Wind,” ON THE CREST OF A WAVE is also set in the south during the Civil War. Unlike Scarlett, my heroine didn’t live on a plantation. In fact, her life was that of the daughter of a fisherman along the Gulf Coast. I can relate to that. I, too, am the daughter of a fisherman so I understood many of the feelings she had about her life.
She finds herself helping a Union officer who was in charge of a prison camp on an island just off the coast of Mississippi. The tiny strip of sand housed thousands of soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

Because my mother’s family has run the ferry boats to and from the island, it was, and still is, an important part of my life. During one summer my family lived on the island to help run the concessions. For six days a week I roamed the island, swam in the water, and slept in the simple building that my grandfather built. On Saturday evening I would take the ferry back to the mainland to attend church on Sunday morning. What a glorious way for any child to spend the summer.

Needless to say, the island made an impression on me and I find I’ve used the images often in my stories. One night during that unforgettable summer, we had to spend the night in Fort Massachusetts because of a high tide from a storm. I remember the night as if it were yesterday, and when I used the fort in this new novel, I was able to pull from those impressions.
Granted, most authors don’t have the opportunity to personally experience all the places that they write about, but getting to know those places and studying the lifestyles during those periods are very important to form the types of characters we create.

Today, when my husband and I take our boat for a day or a weekend of fishing and swimming, we can see the fort from where we anchor. It’s hard to walk the island today over a hundred years later and not think about what happened on that barren stretch of sand. For me, it’s easy to look beyond the fishermen and the sun bathers and see my hero and heroine. I was able to immerse myself in that time period when I wrote the story, and I think we need to do that with every story we write.

Think about the settings you create. Can you place yourself where your characters play and walk and talk? Do you know the feeling of being in the mountains, the plains, a coastline, or in a big city? If you don’t, how can you convey the reality of a setting to your readers? As writers, we can use the internet, books, personal experiences, or other’s experiences to make that happen.

Have fun writing your next setting and let yourself be taken away.

You can visit Fran at her website


  1. Fran, thank you so much for coming to Seekerville today! I love how you infused your novel with the warmth of a setting you knew and loved. I agree, that's huge, it's the 'quiet part' of why we love, love, love certain authors because they transport us to that place, that time with the meld of setting, characterization and plot.

    John Grisham does that with dark crime scenes and dark minds, Lisa Wingate has us wanting coffee and buttermilk pie in Texas, Francine Rivers immerses us in ancient times or modern angst with settings that match and complement the story. It's so important to mesh those things together, to strike a balance.

    Just enough setting to make it real, not enough to gag the reader. Gagging readers is NOT conducive to growing book sales. I'm just sayin'.

    I love it.

    Hey, I brought coffee. High test this AM, and plenty of it because the day looms long in upstate NY...


    Food. Oh, Yum. I love food and I made homemade bread last night, just for all you guys to share. And there's a pot of homemade raspberry jam, fresh butter, and a toaster if you'd like your bread warmed.

    And tea for my tea-drinkin' buds. Did I tell you guys that my heroine in Made To Order Family is a tea drinker???? I did that with a nod to all our tea-drinkin' friends in Seekerville.

    I set out chai as well. And my foamer. :)

    Why does a little bit of foam make everything taste better????


  2. Hi Fran, Yes, we have met at conferences and so it is wonderful to have you visit Seekerville.

    Your novel looks fun and what a special gift to bring alive the history especially history your family experienced.

    I love setting. Ruthy brings upstate NY alive in Winters End. And yes, Ruthy, Lisa sits us right smack dab into Texas.

    Mary Connealy is another author who can bring the setting alive. I swear I was coughing dust on the cattle drive over the mountains in The Husband Tree.

    Thanks for joining us in Seekerville Fran.

  3. Great post. Thanks for visiting, Fran.

  4. Good morning, Fran! Welcome to Seekerville.

    Ruthy, clear a place on the buffet for brewed, very strong Seattle's Best coffee and flavored syrups. To the side, I've set up blenders with fruit, yogurt, and other goodies for make-it-yourself smoothies.

    Gone With The Wind...who can top setting like that? I mean Atlanta went up in a flame of glory!

    I'm with you, I love creating the settings for my characters. Since I write about where I live, it's pretty easy to touchie-feelie everything. The problem is looking past the everyday and ordinary (to me) and pluck out the interesting and extraordinary for my readers.

    Setting showcases the character. Isn't that want we strive for??

  5. Good morning, Fran! Welcome to Seekerville. Great post.

    Setting is really important to me, too. It's practically a character. I don't think I could use a generic setting because I wouldn't know the sights and smells etc.

    Gotta go. Damian is chattering in my ear.

  6. Good morning and thanks to Ruth, Sandra (hi, Sandra), Lynn, Audra, and Cara for stopping by this early.

    Ruth, you made me hungry, especially with the mention of that homemade bread - yummy! Think I'll go eat something!

    Sandra, you're right. I'm reading one of Mary Connealy's books right now, and I can feel her Old West. She does a great job.

    Lynn and Audra, thanks for the kind welcome. And, of course, Cara, I'm honored to be with your group. Kiss Damian for me.

  7. Great post, Fran! I love incorporating the setting into the story, but I also forget to include it a lot, so I need to be reminded.

    Cool story about living on the island in the summer time! And I like the premise of your Civil War story. Sounds like a good story!

  8. Good morning, Fran, and welcome to Seekerville! And, goodness, how very appropriate to read this blog about "setting" while viewing your great title, "On the Crest of the Wave" and hearing the Seekerville waves crash in the background. Did you plan that????

    I couldn't agree more that setting is vital. I just finished reading an incredible author by the name of Laura Frantz whose book "The Frontiersman's Daughter" utilizes setting so well, that it almost becomes a main character. What a difference that makes to me as a reader. Too often I come away from a book where the setting was so cardboard that it depletes the story for me.

    One of my favorite things to do with setting is to surf the Web for pictures of what I have in mind (i.e. the office setting of a 1916 Boston Herald newsroom). I surf until I get an image that gives me the skeleton I need to spark my imagination. Then I do separate research on various things in the scene to deepen the authenticity. I find that if I am not comfortable in my mind with the setting (i.e. the right wallpaper, furniture, greenery), then I feel that the scene is shallow. So I work it until I "feel" like I am there. But since I am not a huge research buff, I usually limit most setting descriptions to the first one or two paragraphs, with little added glimpses here and there throughout the scene.

    Fun topic! Thanks, Fran, for introducing a very important subject, and thanks to Cara for bringing you here. Your book sounds WONDERFUL ... of course, you had me at "Scarlett O'Hara" ... :)


  9. Melanie and Julie, thanks for the comments.
    Yes, I love my title too. I had used that line in another yet-to-be-published manuscript, and I always wanted to use it as a title.
    I'll be away from my computer for several hours, lots of stops to make including the funeral home so I hope to see you again this afternoon.

  10. Fran, it's great to have you here today! I sure enjoyed sharing dinner with you in Denver. :)

    What a great post. Just hearing you briefly describe your summers as a child made me want to read your book! It sounds like such a wonderful setting.

  11. Hey, Ruthy, does your Keruig make foam??? If so, I may have to buy one. You're so right! It makes the coffee better. :)

  12. Hi Fran,

    Thanks for making me really think about setting. I'm afraid mine gets shoved into the background most times. Will try to be more conscientious from now on!

    Julie, that's the second time this week I've heard rave reviews of "The Frontiersman's Daughter". I'll have to pick up a copy! Always like to try a new author.

    Have a great day everyone. It's pretty cold and blustery up here.



  13. Yes, there is some foam with the Keurig because it is forced water infusion, and yes, I like the foam too.

    Although we're off-topic.

    Missy's fault, entirely. :)

    Now I want coffee. Bad.

  14. I tell you what, I can NOT spell today. I meant Keurig. Of course, that might not be correct either. But it's what I meant to type before my fingers spazzed. :)

  15. Fran, When I saw the title for your post I hurried right over:) Setting has always been so important to me as a writer. I love how you've drawn from your childhood memories to make your story richer and deeper. The old adage to "write what you know" really does make sense. But like you said, not all of us can travel to the places we write about. I'm in the midst of that now, researching heavily about a place I've never been, though I've put a visit there at the top of my prayer list! Thank you for such a great post. I'll be looking for your book!
    And Julie, you spread so much book cheer wherever you go!! What a wonderful friend you are. Thank you so much for your gracious words about TFD.
    Bless you all today!

  16. And speaking of coffee... (Ruthy, a coffee shop is the setting for my wip, so I'm not off topic! LOL)

    I just bought some new beans from Starbucks that are YUM! It's a seasonal blend so they may not have it long. Guatemala Casi Cielo. Excellent flavor!

  17. Good morning Fran and Seekers,
    Thanks for a wonderful post. You've given me more to ponder (not hard to do, but you did it well!)

    I'm working on a series. Who KNEW it was going to be a series until it was 24 chapters and counting and the heroine never made it to where I intended her to be. My beloved readers encouraged me to keep the story as is and continue on with a series so... there you have it.

    The first is finished and I'm working on rewrites/polishing while I shop for an agent or editor.

    The thing is, the first is set in a place I know well, with events I know well.

    I'm struggling with how to make the leap to the 2nd place (Washington DC and who knows where else)... I've visited DC twice fairly recently, took zillions of photos, with the book in mind so I'm hoping that will help.

    Do y'all try and visit your settings or surf the 'net like you do Julie, or ???

    And while I'm up, might as well toss it all out there, when starting Book 2 of a series, do you attempt to have it as a stand alone or review Book 1 or ???

    Maybe this could be a topic in the future. It seems quite a few of you who're off the island would know these things!

    Thanks muchos. Time for tea!

    And Fran... Our thoughts & prayers go with you as you stop by the funeral home today.

  18. Fran, thanks for this.
    I feel like I'm better at it now, but setting was a real problem for me for the first few...ahem...DECADES while I was trying to get published.

    I always enjoyed dialogue and story, pushing that along, but were they inside or outside? Was it stormy? Summer? Mountainous?

    I'd just skip that stuff.

    Setting used well can be a character in the book to establish an accent, a cultural attitude, menace or lightheartedness.

    Lest we forget: It was a dark and stormy night.... :)

    In fact, Petticoat Ranch actually started on A Dark and Storm Night.
    Uhoh, so did Calico Canyon. Well, a bitterly cold one. And there was a blizzard in Gingham Mountain.

    Okay, I need to keep learning. Oops.

    Montana Rose opened on a lovely fall afternoon... :)

    Weather isn't exactly setting, but it's part of setting the scene.

  19. And all of this talk of coffee reminded me I've got a coffee maker in my car that I bought for my mother.

    This has nothing to do with this blog, I'm just making a note to myself...ignore me.

    (yeah, like that's not already going on!)

  20. Nice to have you in Seekerville, Fran! I agree, setting--deftly handled, of course--is crucial to good storytelling.

    You got me thinking about authors who really create evocative settings. Pat Conroy and Sue Monk Kidd are two that come immediately to mind. And books like Water for Elephants and The Kite Runner are standout novels.

  21. Wow, I'm back and I'm amazed at all the participation and comments. Thanks to all of you.

    Yes, I did go to the funeral home, but we didn't know the young man (only 34 with 2 children). We knew his brother well so we went to show our respects for him.
    To see someone die so young makes you appreciate each and every day we're here.

  22. Welcome to Seekerville, Fran :) Your post on setting was timely, as that's one of the major writing skills I'm trying to improve. I love when I can read a book, and nearly see the characters, the rooms, taste the food, smell the scents; it's a lovely feeling to be transported into a story :)

    And I agree with what a few of the commenters said; Mary Connealy does a fantastic job on setting. I love her books :)

  23. Mia, I'm with you. Setting is something I'm working on. My early drafts are pretty much talking heads. I have to slow myself down on rewrites to add all that in.

  24. KC, I write mostly fictional towns so I get to do the town my way! :)

  25. Mary, stop paying the visitors.


    It's just not right, girlfriend. Although it's smart an' all.

    And I can't even disagree with the compliments, DAGNABBIT!!!! because I just finished The Husband Tree and I laughed myself silly with Silas and Belle.

    Oh my stars, I think this is your best book yet and I loved Calico Canyon... Those boys!!!!

    And I loved Montana Rose even more.

    So are you going to just keep getting better and better???

    I SO DO NOT want to be in a contest next to you, girlfriend. Sheesh.

    So okay, we've agreed Mary does setting well, because I traveled those snowed-in mountains WITH Belle and Silas and the girls. Oh my stars, it was so easy to picture. Part of that was because of how well you matched their moods, their thoughts with the surroundings, immersing the reader in their trauma, their adventure.

    Well done.

    Okay, enough with complimenting the Connealy-Meister already. Talk about a big head!


    Hey, I brought brownies for the afternoon session. Chocolate frosted. With Valentine sprinkles.


    Dig in. Grab some coffee, diet soda or sweet tea.

    Fran, this is awesome stuff, girlfriend, in spite of the fact that Mary's hogging the spotlight. She does that, you know.

    As if being a Christie Award nominee ISN'T enough.

  26. Fran asked me to tell you how much she enjoyed her visit to Seekerville. She's gone from her computer for the day--she's off to an anniversary party. And this was one of her slower days!

  27. Fran I really enjoyed the post. Thank you so much. Wishing you continued success!

  28. HEY! Me hogging the spotlight?

    Hogging the brownies, sure, I'll admit to that.