Thursday, April 28, 2011
The Importance of Setting
How important is setting to your story? Do you think much about setting? In some books it seems almost irrelevant. The story can take place anywhere—any small town, suburb or city will do since it doesn’t have much impact on the plot or characters.
But in my Ladies of Summerhill series (historical romance) I could only set the books in Newport, Rhode Island because the stories involve the richest people of the Gilded Age, Mrs. Astor’s ‘Four Hundred.’ That was the number who could comfortably fit in her New York ballroom. And she didn’t mean just size-wise. And Newport was where they flocked during July and August.
America’s Gilded Age began after the Civil War and extended into the early twentieth century. This was the era of rapid and enormous economic and population growth. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and refers to the gilding of something with a superficial layer of gold. The phrase makes fun of the ostentatious display of wealth that characterized high society. These millionaires were industrialists, financiers and entrepreneurs whose names still ring with the sound of wealth—or former riches. Who hasn’t heard the names Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor and Vanderbilt? These so-called “robber barons” were sometimes admired and sometimes reviled by the common folk. But they and their life style fascinated their generation and ours as well.
During most of the year a lot of the super rich resided in New York or other East coast cities. But for the short summer season they flocked to places like Bar Harbor, Maine or Saratoga Springs, New York or the Berkshires or Adirondacks.
But the seacoast town of Newport, Rhode Island claimed the title of premier resort during the Gilded Age because of its pleasant climate and glorious scenery. Along Bellevue Avenue and the Ocean Drive, the millionaires built hundred room palaces of limestone or marble, rambling Queen Anne’s, villas, castles, chateaux and chalets. Despite their huge size, they were all called cottages. And they took an army of servants to run them properly.
The most famous social leader of high society was Caroline Astor, wife of real estate heir, William Backhouse Astor, head of one of the richest families in America. With the help of Ward McAllister Caroline decided who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ of society. You needed more than a fortune to meet her rigid standards, but dozens of social climbing, nouveau riche wives tried their best to win her approval.
A few of the requirements for acceptance were wealth, pedigree, property, servants and a fashionable wardrobe made in Paris, preferably by Frederick Worth. The husbands provided the means for this extravagant life, but the women ran the show. Creative in their own right with unlimited funds, they spent an enormous amount on entertaining and amusing each other. They showed off their wealth without any restraint or sense of understatement.
The cost of maintaining a summer estate was high and it was common for a family to spend as much as $70,000 on one event. Imagine what it would cost in our dollars today! The ladies did their best to out do each other. For one evening’s entertainment, Tessie Oelrichs decorated her beautiful estate, Rosecliff, with swans and white flowers. She even had a fleet of white ships constructed to float off shore. Grace Wilson Vanderbilt brought in a popular Broadway show to play at a specially built theatre at Beaulieu. And Mamie Fish, with the assistance of Harry Lehr, loved to give parties which were unusual, to say the least. At one party, the guests of honor were dogs. At another party Mrs. Fish honored Prince del Drago who turned out to be a monkey in evening dress. The guests thought this was a wonderful joke, but the press and the public thought otherwise.
The heyday of Newport conspicuous consumption and outlandish entertainment lasted until after World War 1. Many of these grand mansions (oops, cottages) are now museums and tourist attractions.
So the society itself can become a great part of the setting. If the Gilded Age social climbers are the main characters it might be better to set your story in a place like Saratoga Springs with horse races etc. Different places attracted different classes and types of people. While the millionaires who vacationed in Bar Harbor, Maine enjoyed a more sedate life and less ostentation, they purposely chose to stay away from Newport. Make sure you pick the right location for the story you want to tell.
I’m giving away An Advance Readers Copy of Love by the Book, the last of the Ladies of Summerhill series. It’ll be released on July 12th.
Savor this sweeping love story set in a lavish seaside mansion in 1901 Rhode Island.
Melinda Hollister is a society lady, intent on finding a rich husband before her peers discover her quickly diminishing wealth. Nick Bryson is all business, focused on making a name for himself in his father’s steamship line. Despite the marriage of their siblings, they rarely gave each other a second glance—until a tragic accident results in Melinda and Nick being appointed as co-guardians of their three-year-old niece Nell.
In order to get better acquainted with Nell and one another, Melinda and Nick agree to spend the summer in their own private quarters of the Bryson family vacation home, Summerhill. As their love for Nell grows, so does their attraction to each other. And for the first time in their lives, they sense that God has a bigger plan in motion.
Yet old habits die hard – and Melinda and Nick each find it difficult to resist the pull of their former worlds.
When the unthinkable happens, they find themselves faced with seemingly impossible choices and a new understanding of God’s true love.