Thursday, May 24, 2012
A few thoughts about setting…
As a writer how do you choose your setting? Do you give it much thought? Do you pick a location because it’s familiar and comfortable and won’t require much research? Or do you go for someplace exotic that begs for a research trip?
I think we writers usually choose settings we’re really interested in because we’re going to explore that locale for 300 or more pages, and for several months, if not several years. That’s a long time to live vicariously in a world we don’t like. If you break out in and mosquito bites and sweat just thinking about a jungle, head to another terrain.
When we write we probably consider our own likes and dislikes along with what we think will attract readers. But what’s popular now, might not be popular when the book is published a year or more after a sale. It’s far easier to know what will hold our attention for months at a time than to worry about the changing tastes of readers—not that we can ever forget about them.
Which draws you in: the city, the countryside or a small town?
Some settings automatically create an emotional feeling in you. If you love a place I’d say that’s a strong indication you should at least consider it for a story. Don’t reject a possible setting just because it might difficult to research or too far away (or too expensive) to visit. There are so many ways to research from the comfort of your office. I’d rather visit, of course, but sometimes that’s not possible. Don’t give up you favorite place too quickly!
My three published books (the Ladies of Summerhill series) are set in Newport, Rhode Island. I like the beauty of the island, and I have wonderful childhood memories from lots of visits. My cousin Cindy insists I always said I’d write about Newport someday, but I don’t remember. That doesn’t sound like something I’d say. I’m more apt to keep my dreams and story ideas to myself. But it turned out that’s where I did set my first novels.
But after I picked my location, I had to decide on the time period. The Gilded Age fascinated me, so historical romance became my choice of sub-genre. If and when I write contemporaries, I’ll scout around for another location. As much as I enjoy Newport in the present, it’s the past that captures my imagination.
To me turn-of-the-century high society is intriguing, yet outlandish. People with too much money sometimes do things we wouldn’t dare do—and they got away with it because no one had the power to challenge them! (Maybe that’s what attracted me!) Huge fortunes and a sense of entitlement created unhappiness, even misery, in some of the ‘cottagers.’ I could’ve explored the dark undercurrent of privileged society, but I decided to leave that to others.
I tried to create a cheerful and romantic mood that emphasized society’s foibles instead of its sense of boredom from ‘having it all.’ Every social group we write about is complex and multi-faceted, but we don’t have to cover everyone in one novel.
The tone of the book is also determined by the season of the year. Mine are set in summer when the New Yorkers flooded the town with money and the expectation of fun and frivolity. Even the book covers suggest the story’s light-heartedness.
In the fall and winter, Newport reverted to a sleepy place. After the foliage dies, the town turns colder and grayer. That suggests a very different type of story.
The Gilded Age summer people weren’t the only segment of society I could write about. Newport natives would’ve suggested an entirely different type of story. The locals lived there all year round, and not in mansions inhabited only 6 to 8 weeks a year. Their economic conditions were modest, for the most part. Yet the cottagers and the townies were dependent upon each other. The rich needed the natives to serve them, and the natives needed the rich for their livelihood. It makes for a more complicated, but interesting situation.
There were several groups even among the townsfolk. At the turn-of-the-century Newport had descendents of Puritan dissidents (I have a lot of those in my genealogy), Irish (a lot of them, too), French, Italian and Portuguese immigrants, Jews and blacks. The Navy also had a large and important presence. These groups could make a story filled with clashing cultures or unexpected harmony.
So we have to decide which aspect of society we want to write about.
In A Path toward Love I’m moving on to Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. I’m staying with the Gilded Age society and the same time period. But there are vast differences between Newport cottages and the Adirondack Great Camps.
The vacationers were different too, even though they all belonged to elite society. Newport cottagers liked the formal, ostentatious life where they could display (and flaunt) their status and wealth through extravagant social entertainment and palatial homes. Their mansions were built on a few acres of land, and lined only two or three exclusive avenues. This style of living attracted a certain type of millionaire—one who valued elite society and all that usually went with it.
But those who built Great Camps on the edge on Adirondack lakes enjoyed nature and casual living on huge tracks of forested land. They liked rustic architecture, and handmade furniture made from wood and twigs.
They brought the outdoors inside by hanging their hunting trophies—deer and bear heads--on rough, wooden walls. Fishing, long walks in the woods, and canoeing appealed to them more than fancy balls and coaching. Yet in some ways they brought their comfortable lifestyle along with them. Lots of servants to wait on them and delicious meals prepared by a large kitchen staff meant they weren’t truly ‘roughing it,’ even though many thought they were.
So the mountain setting determined the kind of activities my characters could engage in. My cast of characters might dress formally for dinner, but they wore casual clothes when they took a guide boat out on the lake or sang around a bonfire on a narrow strip of brown sand they called a beach.
It’s also important to think about how your protagonist would react to a particular setting.
What if she hates the sea, dampness, fog, and the pounding of surf? Maybe she can’t swim or finds sailing too rough. Or maybe she’s afraid of hurricanes. Her favorite place might be the dessert, or the mountains. Does she like to be in the middle of a crowd or by herself or with just a few friends? The setting will effect her reactions, and her mood. Each character may react differently to the same setting, and this in turn, could effort the plot.
Your heroine will view the setting through the lens of her emotions—what she’s feeling at that particular moment of time. If she’s afraid of the water, she’ll want to stay away from the ocean. Yet if she happens to be in a confident frame of mind, she might be adventurous enough to dip her toe into the surf. However, don’t go overboard and put her on a surfboard, at least not without her gradually getting used to the water. Just use a little common sense.
Thanks for letting me ramble today.
Let me repeat my first questions. How do you choose your setting? Do you give it much thought? Do you pick a location because it’s familiar and comfortable and won’t require much research? Or do you go for someplace exotic that begs for a research trip? I’m curious if other writers care as much as I do about setting, or if you find settings practically interchangeable.
I’m giving away one Advanced Reader’s Copy of A Path toward Love. If you’re interested, please leave your e-mail address. (Pic of book cover)
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