Janet here. Novels need a strong sense of time and place. Something more detailed than the dateline in the opening that I use in my Love Inspired Historical romances. That dateline gives the reader a temporary anchor, but the descriptions of setting that follow the simple “New Harmony, Iowa, 1901” is what creates a story world. Settings range from familiar small town locales to exotic locations to paranormal, sci-fi or fantasy worlds and anywhere in between.
The importance of the setting may vary but the setting should still be considered a character in the story. Setting is like the location of a home. If we build a mansion on a non-descript lot without plantings, without a view, the home’s beauty is diminished. In the same way, we don’t want to build our stories upon a bland, forgettable setting. Without a strong setting, the actions, conflict and plot exist in a vacuum. And readers will find it difficult to escape everyday life to join the characters on their journey. Think of Gone with the Wind. Rip out the charm and tragedy of the Antebellum South and the Civil War and the story’s impact is diminished.
Not that we writers want to give so many details that we bore readers or make them think they’re reading a travel log or have stumbled into a history class.
How do we know we’re writing too much description?
· When the descriptions hinder or stop the action.
· When the characters are left dangling on the page for several paragraphs while we rhapsodize over a sunset or seascape.
· When our gut says we’re droning on too long, we should listen.
· When we describe what is not important to the plot or to the character.
· Sprinkle short descriptions between dialogue and action.
Kind of like feeding a finicky infant. A dab of applesauce on the tip of the spoon slips the green beans in before the baby knows what happened. I will use excerpts from my books that will hopefully illustrate my points.
From Wanted: A Family:
His gaze roamed the kitchen, took in the cupboards, their patina mellow with age, then the checked green and white curtains framing the windows, the soft green walls, the vase of dahlias in the center of the table. The serenity in the room reflected Callie, wrapped around Jake, tugging him in. Everywhere he looked he saw Callie’s penchant for tidiness, for making a nest. “This is cozy.”
“Aunt Hilda always said the kitchen’s the heart of a home.” She motioned to the sink. “Feel free to wash up while I pour your coffee.”
Jake eased passed her. At the washbasin, he scrubbed his hands and dried them on a towel. When had he felt anything softer? Not the rough, threadbare towels he’d used in prison.
To Jake these little homey details in sharp contrast with his years in an orphanage and in prison draw him in.
· Write descriptions that are powerful and create emotion in the reader.
From “Last Minute Bride,” Brides of the West anthology:
As he headed out, he passed the surgery room. He paused by the cabinet, his gaze roaming bottles of medicine, scissors and scalpels glistening in the sunlight.
Once he had believed in those medicines and instruments. Believed in his ability as a doctor. But then he had sat by his sister’s bedside, preformed surgery and watched her die. His medicines, his instruments, his hands of no use. Those bottles and tools promised cures when David knew the truth.
Some things couldn't be cured. Some people couldn’t be saved. Some people couldn’t be forgiven. Like him.
I use setting to elicit Doctor Wellman’s pain of not being able to save his sister.
· Create settings that are appropriate to the book.
Create settings that are unique, appealing, intriguing, harsh. Whatever is needed to match the book’s mood and plot.
From An Inconvenient Match:
Outside the Cummings gate, wrought of iron, tall and imposing and all but shouting Keep Out, Abigail gulped, lifting her eyes to the three-story structure looming over her. Brick exterior, wood cornices and brackets supported the eaves. A boxy cupola with windows rose above the roof, a watchtower of sorts.
Abigail had never been inside the mansion, for surely no other word described this commanding house. Yet nothing about the structure was pretentious. The house reflected George Cummings, a man with money to build a solid house that never let down its guard. Never let others near.
Abigail’s family and the Cummings are feuding. The way she sees the Cummings house fits the tone of the book.
·Use settings to give the reader important information.
From An Inconvenient Match:
Refusing to give the scoundrel another thought, Abigail moved through the park, pulling into her lungs a faint whiff of smoke. The acrid odor sparked memories of the fire that had swept through New Harmony two weeks earlier, leaving behind destruction and suffering.
As she recalled the unbearable heat, the thick smoke, the terror of the night, she stomach knotted. But then, the underlying scent of fresh lumber reached her nostrils and its promise of a new beginning eased the tension inside of her.
· Use weather to altar the setting to fit the plot and the character’s mood.
From The Bride Wore Spurs:
In the distance thunder rumbled, the sky drew dark, matching his dark concern for Allie and the dismal prospect of life without Hannah. The wind kicked up, setting the branches of the trees swaying. Overhead the ceiling of clouds turned turbulent.
As turbulent as the eyes Hannah turned on Matt.
As writers, we get to not only create a setting, we get to control the setting’s weather, using conditions to mimic mood, heighten suspense, even create danger or trouble for characters. Suspense writers use weather to up the struggle for survival. Storms, surging surf, clear starlit nights will be seen differently depending on how those elements impact the characters’ situation.
How can we make settings matter so much readers won’t skip them?
Settings are easier to skip when they lack significance to the character or to the story. When settings up the action, the tension, the emotion, they become as vital to the book as the dialogue and plot. That makes them much harder to skip.
· When we show the setting through the point of view character’s eyes something about the character will be revealed to the reader. Better yet, something unknown.
The setting is seen differently by different people and differently by the same people at different times. Try saying that six times. Characters notice what matters to them and view what they notice in accordance with past experiences and present circumstances.
From Wanted: A Family:
She swiped a strand of hair clinging to her damp skin and let her gaze roam the old Victorian, the house where she and Martin had lived the past two years. Once majestic, but now with the peeling paint demanding another coat, the rickety porch begging for solid boards and rails, the roof pleading for shingles, the house looked like a princess down on her luck.
Her breath caught. Martin had called her his princess, usually when he sought her forgiveness for some infraction. Some infraction usually involved skipping work or spending money they didn’t have. But how could she not forgive that happy-go-lucky charmer most anything? Her throat tightened. Especially now?
Of their own volition her eyes traveled to the steep gabled roofline, to the spot where Martin had lost his footing in early November and tumbled to his death.
Instead of telling the reader Callie’s husband died from a fall off their roof, I used the setting to reveal that information in an emotional way. This house is significant, a symbol of sorts. As the house is restored so are its occupants.
When we use the setting to show characterization.
Characters’ gender, economic, social and marital status and occupation also impacts what they observe and how they react. Little details won’t be overlooked when they hold special meaning and the character has reason to be observant.
From An Inconvenient Match:
…He waited but heard nothing, then opened the door and entered the bedroom. Spotless, organized with nothing frivolous, nothing personal, not a picture, trinket or toiletry in sight. The décor was stark, shades of brown and black. Dismal.
Like the man.
Wade’s sick father’s bedroom reveals his father’s personality and hints at their relationship.
When we use setting to show character change and growth.
In the following two excerpts I echo the setting of the doctor’s office and the bottle of remedy—another symbol—that Luke formulated to reveal the growth and change of this wounded doctor.
From Courting the Doctor’s Daughter: In this first excerpt, the setting reveals Luke’s despair,
His gaze moved to the bottle. In his mind, he saw Mary opposing him that first day. As if she’d instinctively known he meant nothing but trouble in her life. In Ben’s. Doubt coiled through him, weighed down his limbs until he couldn’t move.
No matter what Doc had said, his medicine reminded Luke of failure. He’d found no cure for epilepsy. He didn’t have the money to build a refuge for those afflicted with the disorder. And he’d let Mary down. He’d let down his son. Worst of all, he opened the door to his parents who were capable of anything.
He gave the bottle a shove, harder than he meant to. It toppled, sliding across the table and disappearing off the edge, hitting the floor, splattering liquid and shattered glass in every direction.
A mess. Exactly what he’d made of his life.
Near the story’s end, Luke’s view of his remedy reveals his growth and change.
Turning to go, his gaze swept the enormous breakfront filled with medicine. Something stopped him, made him open the glass door. Finding what he sought, Luke clutched his remedy and then walked to the table, dropped into a chair and set the bottle in front of him. Doc had said the contents of his bottle mattered. Had been part of God’s plan.
Joseph’s suffering had led him to find this medicine, to dedicate his life to healing. God had used this remedy to bring Mary, Doc, and the boys into his life. The liquid caught the light from above, glistened with a shimmer of gold. And unbroken bottle, unblemished and shining like a new start. Or so he saw it now.
When we use elements of the setting to reveal the characters’ mood.
From The Bride Wore Spurs:
Hannah grappled with the feed sack, watching the oaks tumble end over end into the feedbox. A sense of peace filled her. Here in the stable, among the crusty cowpokes, unpredictable livestock and her steadfast steed, she fit. This life filled her as she filled Star’s feedbox, to the brim, to overflowing.
· When we use setting to increase or ease conflict or in some way impact our characters’ situation we heighten tension for characters and readers.
From An Inconvenient Match:
Abigail leaned the counter and let her gaze sweep the large, well-equipped kitchen. A mammoth stove, the vast workspace and two enormous iceboxes could easily handle food preparation for lavish dinner parties.
Off to the side, the butler’s pantry’s floor-to-ceiling cabinets displayed silver serving pieces geared to lavish entertaining. Entertaining this house hadn’t seen. Or if it had, the Wilsons hadn’t received an invitation.
No matter how often she came here, Abigail couldn’t get over the luxury. Proof she and Wade lived in different worlds.
The setting produces conflict and concern that Abigail and Wade can’t overcome their differences in status.
· When we use elements of the setting to trigger memories or flashbacks in characters that adds emotion, depth and emphasizes a point without hammering the reader over the head.
From The Substitute Bride:
He dropped into a rocking chair near the potbelly stove, stretching out his legs toward the warmth of the fire. As he stared into the window at the flames, thinking how difficult childhood could be sometimes, his mind catapulted back.
Fire and brimstone. Exactly what his father had preached at those revivals. Men and women rushed to the altar to lay down their load of sin. But behind his father’s fiery demeanor lived a liar. Even as young as five, Ted had known his father pocketed the offering, laughing at the stupidity of those he bilked. Not a preacher at all, but a charlatan who stole money to gamble.
The flames flickered but Ted barely noticed the dancing oranges and yellows. He saw an endless parade of towns filled with faces his father had betrayed. Ted had sat on the front row, throat tight with shame, and waited…fear crawling up his spine, sure God would strike his father dead on the spot. But God never did.
The flames began to ebb, but the heat remained. Much like God’s love. God didn’t kill sinners—He loved them. Even men like his father.
Even men like him.
What must we do to write setting effectively?
We need to research. If we’re careless about creating authentic settings, our readers will know and may let us know.
· We need to know our characters. Know who they are and what makes them tick. Know what happened in their pasts that impacts them today and holds them back. Once we know our characters, we’ll know what about this place, about this time, impacts the characters and the story we want to tell. Then we’ll show the setting through their eyes and the setting will matter. If we do that as effectively as we can, readers won’t want to skip a word.
I’ve ordered lavish breakfast buffet and salad bar for lunch. I've set the tables. Some with Seekerville’s finest china, sterling flatware and crystal with linen napkins and tablecloth. Others with pottery, glasses, stainless flatware, fabric place mats and matching napkins. Others with paper plates and napkins, plastic glasses and utensils with a plastic disposable tablecloth. I’m guessing behavior, plans, mood, and conversation at these table may vary, that the setting, even at dining tables, matters. So let us know which table you made a beeline to and why.
Or if you prefer, share a novel you've read with a setting you've never forgotten.
Or ways you've used setting to enhance your stories.
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Janet Dean credits her father, an Art and Social Studies teacher, for giving her not only a love of art and history, but also of storytelling. He shared wonderful folksy stories of real people passed down to him from his father. Janet’s mother was an artist in her own right, hand-stitching beautiful quilts. The most important legacy her parents gave her was a love for God.
Janet started writing fiction around the age of twelve, penning and illustrating little romances. None of those early stories survive, but her love of reading and writing did. She married her college sweetheart and taught elementary school before leaving to raise two daughters. After seeking publication for nine years, Janet sold to Love Inspired Books. Whenever she can snatch a few moments away from writing, Janet enjoys stamping greeting cards, playing bridge and golf. She and her husband love to travel.