Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Put Meat, Not Fat, On the Bones of Your Setting





Janet here. Last month I talked about fleshing out our characters by adding meat to their bones, those details that bring them to life and hook the reader. Yet if we fatten them up too much or too early, we risk slowing the pace and boring the reader.

The same holds true of setting. When we attend a play, we don't want actors to move around on a bare stage. Nor should our characters move around in a vacuum in our books. 

I think of a bare bones setting as a silhouette, a flat colorless outline lacking the rich detail that brings the setting alive. You might recognize the silhouette of this skyline even without "Chicago" written below it. But think of all the lost opportunities if this is all of setting our story showed. When we flesh out our settings, readers will buy into the world we’ve built and be grounded in the where (location) and the when (time frame) of our story.

As with our characters, if we fatten up the setting too much with lengthy descriptions, especially in the opening, we risk slowing the pace and boring readers. It's much better to sprinkle setting in. 






                 1. Set the stage with vivid description 
                                           Use snippets of setting in every scene.

Not just any old description will do. Use strong descriptive words to paint vivid pictures and readers will join us in our story world, able to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the setting. 



    

This is the opening paragraph from Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s Dream a Little Dream:

The last of Rachel Stone’s luck ran out in front of the Pride of Carolina Drive-In. There on a mountainous two-lane blacktop road shimmering from the heat of the June afternoon, her old Chevy Impala gave its final death rattle.

(Note: the first line is a great hook.) See how quickly Susan fleshes out the setting with no fat. She tells us it’s June, hot, mountainous, probably in the Carolinas. Did this brief description put you there? It did me. I’ve seen blacktop shimmer with heat. The drive-in and Chevy Impala suggests a time frame. When my dh and I were dating, he bought a used red Impala convertible. That car was cool. And a reminder that setting isn’t just flora and fauna, weather, scenery... Setting is also inanimate objects. Setting is whatever surrounds our characters that we deem worthy of notice.  

As we ramp up the details in our descriptions of our setting--in this case Chicago--becomes more three-dimensional, more vivid. Yet as pretty and detailed as the image is below, as real as it feels, the aerial view distanced the reader from the setting. We can make setting count for a lot more. 


In the next image of Chicago, the setting is up close. When the character is immersed in the setting, we can use his surroundings to show the character and increase emotion. Then the setting will be integral to our stories. Not just a pretty or ugly or interesting or challenging backdrop characters move around in or use. So how do we do that?
        


2. Use setting to show characters and advance plot. Details are the key to writing effective settings. Select those details that reveal mood, biases, wounds, memories, quirksUse setting to establish the tone of the story, to sprinkle in back story, to advance the plot (everything should advance the plot), even to trigger flashbacks.     

We can make the setting do double duty by carefully selecting the elements of setting that show the character, as we show his surroundings. Setting can contrast or mirror the character’s state of mind, which ups the emotion and adds tension on the page

In this opening paragraph of Debby Giusti’s Protecting Her Child, Debby uses setting to match—even enhance—the heroine’s mood:

Meredith Lassiter’s throat ran dry and her pulse raced as the wind outside whistled through the tall pine trees. The old house moaned in protest, its creaks sounding like footsteps in the night. Ever so slowly, she eased back the edge of the curtain and peered into the darkness.


In this excerpt from Julie Lessman’s A Passion Denied, the setting and character almost become one:

Marcy stood at Mrs. Gerson’s kitchen window, in bleak harmony with the rivulets of water that slithered down the pane. It was a slow and steady rain, endless weeping from a gray and dismal sky, and Marcy felt a kinship with it. It showed no signs of letting up, much like the grief in her heart over the loss of her husband. A silent mourning over a spouse who was still very much alive, but whose love was as cold and dead as any corpse.

             3.   Use elements of setting to up the emotion. 
                
To take setting to the next level, we need to show how the setting is seen through the point of view character’s eyes. I'm not talking about showing a rainy day as matching the character's mood or how a creaking house ups the tension and matches the character's fear. All of these are essential if we want to bring our settings alive. But to give setting even more significance, use a detail that might not normally seem important but is very important to the character. Perhaps because of something that happened to them in the past or is happening to them now. Level Three is hardest to write, at least for me. It requires digging deep into the character and sometimes into the writer.

I used setting in this scene from my debut Courting Miss Adelaide to help the hero calm an upset child and to show the character's wound:


Tears spilled over her pale lower lashes, becoming visible now that they were wet and spiky. If he didn’t do something, she’d start bawling. The prospect sent him behind his desk. He jerked open the top drawer and rummaged through it until he found what he sought--a bag of peppermints. “When I was a youngster,” he began, “on my way home from school, I’d pass Mrs. Wagner’s house. She’d be rocking on her porch, wearing a gray tattered sweater, no matter how hot the day...”
Emma stopped crying, but looked far from cheerful.
“She’d call me up on the porch, ask if I was studying and behaving. Then, she’d reach into the pocket of her sweater and pull out a peppermint.” Charles took a candy from the bag. Emma’s eyes widened. “She’d say, ‘You’re a smart boy, Charles. Work hard and one day you’ll make something of yourself.’ And, she’d drop the candy into my palm--like this.”
He opened Emma’s small hand and let a peppermint fall into her palm. When the corners of her mouth turned up in a smile, a peculiar feeling shot through him. As it had for him all those years ago, the candy once again worked wonders.
           His entire adult life, he’d kept a stash of peppermints around, to remind him of Mrs. Wagner, the one person who had believed in him, who’d given him a desire to improve his lot. The candy still tasted as sweet as her words.  

Another character might pull out a peppermint to soothe a child, but that isn't using this object of the setting to up the emotion. But when the candy is used to show the heartache of Charles's past and the significance it holds for him, setting will up the emotion for the reader. Use judiciously or risk losing its power and irking readers. 






I brought a spread of fruit and bagels with an assortment of toppings served on the screened porch of the cafe with a lovely view of our quaint town. 

For a chance to win one of the Seeker's books, your choice, leave a comment. If you can, share a snippet of setting from a wip or favorite book.     



85 comments:

Mary Jane Hathaway said...

I love all those examples! Especially the Impala in front of the Drive-In. LOL. That's an excellent first line.

This is the first line of my last book (as yet still on my computer and not out in the world).

"Charlotte McGregor pressed the last tomato seedling into the dark earth and felt a soul-deep conviction that this garden was going to prove, once and for all, that she knew exactly what she was doing with her life."

I did have to revise the first 15 pages because I ALWAY info dump and ramble, as much as I try not to and know I shouldn't. But that's what revision is for, right?

Trixi said...

I don't know if this counts as setting but it's one of many of my favorite scenes from my latest book I just got done reading, "Fetching Sweetness" by Dana Mentink! The scene is where the hero of this story makes a pot of homemade french onion soup topped with cheese bread and both him, his sister and the heroine are sitting down to enjoy it. The heroine is reflecting on some deeper things in life :-)

"They ate the soup, and it was, as Stephanie (the heroine) expected, the most incredible thing she had ever had the privilege to consume. Was it the savory beef broth or the way the cheese melted into unctuous ribbons that mingled with the onions? Perhaps it was the bits of bread, silky and luxurious on her tongue.
As she looked around, the sunset painting the sky outside the trailer windows, she suspected that the soup was seasoned with ingredients far more precious and rare.
Two nutty dogs, snuggling together to comfort one another.
A sister who had lost a love and found her brother.
A trailer held together with duct tape and memories.
And a man who knew how to make islands out of cheese.
It comes, O God, from you. (this is italicized)
Her own sense of gratitude in that moment did not surprise her as much as it would have a week before."

Thanks for the bagels & fruit Janet! What a yummy treat :-) And thanks to for an insightful post about setting and the various ways an author brings us readers into their story by using various ones. I've met my share of authors who know how to do it excellently!! Please add my name to the draw, thanks so much!

Tina Radcliffe said...

This is an area I have to actively work on as it does not come naturally. Excellent examples.

Will come back in the am with some examples from my favorite books.

Mary Preston said...

This line from 1984 by George Orwell always intrigued.

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Cindy W. said...

I loved this post Janet. Thank you. I found it interesting that you mention we wouldn't want to watch a play in which the actors move around on a bare stage. I went to a play in Los Angeles many years ago in which all the props on stage were barely there. There was a framework for a house and some chairs but the audience was pulled in by the acting and was given a sense of the surroundings. It was "Summer and Smoke" with Christopher Reeve & Christine Lahti. I loved it because it allowed me to envision what was meant to be there. Which I love about books, when the author gives you enough to see but not to much to ruin your imagination. Hope that makes sense.

Here is the first line out of a book I just finished, Missing by Lisa Harris. "Nikki Boyd slid out of her white Mini Cooper as two bagged bodies were being wheeled from the one-story house nestled in one of Nashville's nicer suburbs." I can see it. Guess I've watched too many crime shows.

Everyone have a blessed day!

Smiles & Blessings,
Cindy W.

The Artist Librarian said...

I went through my Kindle app and found this from Elizabeth Camden's Beyond All Dreams --Anna is a librarian at the Library of Congress in the late 19th century:

"Even after six years, there were times Anna loved to stand in the aisles, awed by the immensity of the books towering above her. It was magical and magnificent. Amazing and inspiring. These books contained the wisdom of the ages, some of them outlasting the counties in which they had first been written. Caring for books and helping others unlock the mysteries inside them was what she'd been put on this earth to do."

A bit ... romanticized perhaps, but since the author is a librarian herself, I let it slide. ;-) Besides, the whole book is pretty amazing. =)

Jackie said...

Good morning, Janet! I've been working on my opening scene and trying to address the judges' comments. I love that you said setting needs to advance the plot. One issue I'm working on is increasing the pace, and I'd been wondering about the best way to do this. Your post has helped. Thanks so much!

Janet Dean said...

MARY JANE, I love how beautifully you used setting in your opening to intrigue the reader! It gave us a peek at her wound and made me ask questions. Pressed the seedling shows her, too. Great first line! Thanks for sharing!

I write info dumps in my first draft, too. That's how many of us discover our characters back story and their wounds. As you say, we clean that up in revisions. I keep a file and cut and paste the backstory dump in that. And sprinkle it in later.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

TRIXI, thanks for sharing this excerpt! The soup becomes far more than a meal to Stephanie, then the author expanded the setting to show more of her gratitude. Love that in her thoughts the soup was seasoned with relationships and elements of setting. A trailer held together with duct tape and memories is a beautiful line that tells me a lot. Excellent!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

TINA, I especially find using ordinary elements of the setting to add depth to the character and bring out back story. My characters just love to think about their pasts. I have to rein that in. :-)

Janet

Janet Dean said...

MARY P, that line grabs the reader and turns reality on its head. Thanks for sharing!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

CINDY W, actors that could enable you to see more setting than was there are amazingly talented. I'd probably still miss it. I love the details of setting. Guess I'm a visual person.

That body bags line grabs you. Especially grabs me as ACFW is in Nashville this year. ;-)

Janet

Janet Dean said...

THE ARTIST LIBRARIAN, Anna's reaction to the setting triggers her sense that unlocking the mysteries of books is her purpose in life. That really intrigues me. Excellent use of setting. Thanks for sharing!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JACKIE, I'm delighted the post helped. Setting isn't just there to dress up the story. Setting is integral to the book. Sprinkle it in with details that advance the plot and setting ups the pace.

In Dream a Little Dream the drive-in and its owner are the foundation of the plot. I loved that Susan Elizabeth Phillips had the car die there, right in front of it.

Janet

Jill Weatherholt said...

Thank you for this terrific post, Janet! I've printed it for my Seeker notebook. I've been reworking my opening scene and your examples will be so helpful. You're a good teacher. :)

Debby Giusti said...

Janet, great post. I'm honored that you used an excerpt from PROTECTING HER CHILD. Openings are so important...along with setting.

Loved your mention of inanimate objects being part of that setting. A nice nugget to savor. Thank you. I'm pondering if I could add one to my WIP...an inanimate object. How 'bout that Chevy Impala Susan Elizabeth used. WOWZA! That woman can write!

Reaching for some of the lovely items you provided for breakfast as I sip my coffee.

Looking forward to today's comments.

Hugs to all!

Glynna Kaye said...

Thank you for the reminder to weave that description in, Janet--just like backstory dumps, NO pages of setting description dumps either!

Janet Dean said...

JILL, thank you! I teach to remind myself. :-) I'm always surprised by how easily I can forget craft tips that I know when I write. It helps to take a step back and study what I've written more objectively and think how I can give it more impact, more emotion. Have fun revising your opening!

Janet

Cindy Regnier said...

Very informative post Janet. I tried to think about the setting elements in the opening of my wip. Dusty street, hot, crowd of people, tension in the air, all communicated to the reader without actually "describing". You mentioned using elements of setting to up the emotion. Can emotion be part of the setting? As in my heroine is fearful, uncertain and regretting her decision to come to this town as a mail order bride. It seems to me the inner feelings of the characters are part of the setting. You did this so well in The Bride Wore Spurs! Feeling what Hannah felt when Matt met her instead of her father put me right into the story. That's setting - right?

Janet Dean said...

DEBBY, your opening immediately made me worry about the heroine. That's great writing!

SEP really turned up the trouble for her heroine and the hero in Dream a Little Dream.

Sipping coffee with friends and pondering writing is what Seekerville is about. Perhaps you'll come up with an inanimate object you can use to trigger emotion in the character and in the reader. In my wip, I'm using a pot of pansies to trigger a memory, then have the heroine think that maybe here in this town, she can bloom where she's planted like those pansies. I'd better use them a third time. Maybe they're wilting and that mimics the hopelessness she feels. Hmm, pondering.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

GLYNNA, so true! The problem with long descriptions of setting is readers will likely skip them. It's far better to sprinkle them in. Better yet to give them another purpose than just to set the stage, though that's important.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

CINDY R, excellent example of using the elements of the street and town to impact the mail order bride emotionally, which increases the emotion for the reader, too. Great job!

Matt meeting Hannah at the train is more about character than setting. She expected her father so Matt's appearance made her worry. Later in the story when she's looking at the ranch and realizes she'll do anything to keep it, the setting advances the plot and adds emotion.

Another place in that story, I use setting to trigger a terrible flashback for Matt of his wife's death that leads to an action that irks Hannah.

Setting is an important tool for storytellers.

Janet

Elaine Manders said...

I'm enjoying these examples. Description of setting is something I sometimes forget. The visual is so clear in my mind I forget a reader won't get it without words. All of my settings come through the senses of the POV character, hopefully as naturally as I can make it. One problem I've had with my current wip is since it's the second in a series but can be a stand-alone, I have to remember to define the setting again but differently than the first book.

Would love the chance to win another Seeker's book.

Barbara Scott said...

JANET, great examples of how setting can illuminate a character or contribute to the mood of your story! I confess, setting a scene is the hardest part of writing for me. Dialogue rolls out of my fingers onto the page. With setting, I need to stop, close my eyes, and sniff the air, touch the rough timber of a barn, or feel the raindrops plopping on my head. Then I can write setting, but I usually have to go back and layer it in.

I'd love to win a Seekerville book! Please count me in. :)

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Janet Great examples and ways to use setting. I love getting into the setting as that is what makes a book come alive to me--when I can picture it and feel I'm there.

Here is the first lines of my current wip

“HELP! GRAMMY, HELP!”
Brian Roberts jerked upright. His surfboard rocked precariously as he twisted to spot the source of the child’s cries.
“Grammy!”
Water splashed toward the shoreline. Brian stretched his back and put his hand to his forehead to shade his eyes from the glare of the water.
“Help!”

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks for all the great tips and examples, JANET!

I'm currently reading SANDRA's "New Beginnings" from our Love Will Find a Way collection, and she does a great job with setting! Here's the opening line:

Samantha paused and peered around at the tall red rocks found in this remote area of Grand Canyon National Park. Nothing moved. Silence echoed, almost hurting her ears.

Nicky Chapelway said...

Excuse me a minute while I go back through my work and try to find some examples of detail (I'm no good at it! No good at all!) Writing detail is probably the main thing I struggle with while writing, and generally the first draft will have no detail whatsoever so I have to go back and add it into the second and third drafts. So I found your post to be very interesting.

Here I think I found something in my searching, though in truth it doesn't have that much detail...

What a fine mess Edgar had gotten himself into. A fine mess indeed.

He silently cursed himself as he inched forward on his stomach. Because he had been so hasty in leaving he had not properly listened to the instructions of where the meeting was taking place, and so instead of heading to the warehouse behind the Crown Inn he went to the Crown Tavern, where there was no warehouse. He had wasted valuable time searching for the warehouse. Time he should have spent scoping out a perch in which he could safely hear the transaction that was taking place tonight without being discovered

Now not only was he late, and the meeting already started, but he was also in a compromising position.

Edgar inched forward a little closer to the two men who were meeting so he could hear what they were saying. He was careful to not allow his trench coat to drag along the wooden floor of the warehouse or snag on any loose nails. He only hoped that the crates he was crawling behind offered sufficient cover and that the men speaking on the other side could not spot him from their higher vantage point.

They were conversing in English just in case any French traitors were listening in. Fortunately for Edgar he was English. He easily understood what they were saying.

Laura Conner Kestner said...

Thank you, JANET - I really needed this! And I love all the samples and examples that are being shared! So interesting!

Rhonda Starnes said...

Thank you for such an informative post, Janet. I think setting is one of my weakest areas when it comes to my writing. Here's the scene in my current wip where the hero and heroine come face to face for the first time in the story:

Linc maneuvered the vehicle down the winding lane, his path lit by ornate lampposts that matched the gate. The lane ended in a well-lit circular drive in front of a white-bricked, French chateau style home.

Linc whistled under his breath. He’d forgotten how impressive this place was. Should he have dressed in a suit and tie instead of jeans and a navy blazer? He glanced around once more then shrugged. No point worrying about that now. Besides, he wasn’t one to put on airs.

His cell phone vibrated as he climbed out of the SUV. He pulled the phone from his belt and read the name on the display. Ryan Vincent, his best friend and business partner.

Linc grinned. “Hey buddy. Tell me you have some information.”

“Unfortunately, not much. My contact said there’s no evidence to support the senator’s theory. Lucy’s life isn’t in danger.”

As he listened, he walked to the back of the vehicle to retrieve his bag. “So the police don’t think there’s a threat? Who do they think vandalized the construction site?”

“They think it may have been a group of teenagers. A firefighter who lives in the area reported a carload of teens hot-rodding down the street around the time the security alarm sounded.”

Linc dropped his duffle onto the ground and lifted his hand to close the cargo door. “Then why am I here?”

“I’d like to know the answer to that myself.”

Slamming the door harder than he’d intended, Linc exhaled a deep breath before he turned around and came face-to-face with the person he had spent the last five hundred miles dreading seeing. The person he was here to protect. Lucy Derrick.

Janet Dean said...

ELAINE, great point! We writers know what's in our heads but we have to get it on the page. Love that you describe the setting through the characters eyes. I've read authors of series who just cut and paste descriptions of the setting and characters from earlier books. Congrats on writing fresh!

When I was a newbie, I would write dialogue with talking heads. My characters didn't move or think or interact with the setting when they talked. Always a lot to remember!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

BARBARA, the trick for me when layering in setting is to step back with each scene and see if there's a way to make it matter more, make it more emotional. Layering takes time and thought and if I'm not careful, I'm not critical enough of what I wrote to dig deeper.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

SANDRA, love that opening! Surf, sun, a child in danger are great hooks!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

MYRA, thanks for sharing Sandra's opening from the new Seeker novella collection. I love that she uses silence to hurt the heroine's ears. I'm not sure I've ever been in such a remote spot. But know Sandra has. Great line!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

NICKY, in a tense scene like yours, the details the hero would notice would only be the ones that could trip him up and alert the others to his presence. Your passage conveyed the risk of your hero moving along the wooden warehouse floor, leery of loose nails, hiding behind crates. Good job! Perhaps a rat could dart away and up the tension more. :-)

Would he wear a trench coat when spying? A small detail but I'd think he'd wear black turtleneck and slacks. The less layers the better, no matter the weather.

One point that has nothing to do with setting, but I thought I'd make. Would your hero be careless listening to the location of the warehouse when it's so important? Perhaps he couldn't hear well and only caught the Crown part of the location and had to guess which one. Or perhaps something happened to hamper his arrival. Something he couldn't avoid that made him late. Just a thought to consider. You know your story.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

LAURA, isn't it fun to hang out with fellow writers and readers? I always get a lot out of our time together.

Janet

Sandy Smith said...

Janet, this is a great post. The book I'm writing is about a tornado in Nebraska, so setting is very important. As I read this, though, I realized that I probably need to do more. Describing the tornado itself and the weather surrounding it is important, but I realized I need to do more with setting before the tornado. I will have to look at that again.

The book that comes to my mind for fabulous use of setting is The Great Gatsby. There are so many passages but the following is especially memorable for me.

But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic--their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brook on over the solemn dumping ground.

Please enter me in the drawing.

Janet Dean said...

RHONDA, excellent job showing the house through your hero's eyes! If it's really big, maybe have him think it's a mansion. He's slightly disconcerted by the wealth the house suggests, which shows he's human, yet he has confidence and a good sense of self.

Does the duffel mean he's staying the night? Perhaps the reader already knows the answer from an earlier passage, but if not, you might want to clarify so the reader isn't lost.

The hook ending of this excerpt hints at back story, perhaps romance and a prior connection. Love it! Thanks for sharing!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

SANDY, thanks for sharing the powerful excerpt from The Great Gatsby! Love the contrast of the oculist billboard overlooking the dump. Add in the contrast of colors--gray of the landscape with blue eyes and yellow spectacles neglected and bleached by the sun. The details and word choice are amazing, as in: Spasms of bleak dust that drift endlessly over it. This is a terrific example of using setting to establish mood.

Janet

DebH said...

Great post today, Janet. Unfortunately, I'm not near any of my writing to contribute to examples - but I certainly enjoy seeing others. I always enjoy your examples - they help me learn and remember better.

Janet Dean said...

DEBH, you don't have to give an excerpt. We're always glad to see you here! Examples are the best learning tools for me.

Janet

Wilani Wahl said...

Thank you for this post. I've printed it out for future reference. I love the print feature on the site. It is so much easier to print off the ones I want to save.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Janet, I love the ways you share to use settings in our stories. One thing Susan May Warren teaches is to share the setting as the character walks through the scene, rather than doing a description dump at the opening of the scene. I'm trying to master doing this. I'm also a big fan of using words to describe the setting through the POV character's eyes and emotions.

Such a good post!

Jeri Hoag said...

Great lesson! It really made me understand the use of setting more clearly and constructively. Thank you!

Janet Dean said...

WALINI, I'm always blessed to hear a post is print worthy. Thanks! Glad Seekerville made it easier to do.

Hope you're doing better health wise.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JEANNE, thanks for sharing Susie's suggestion to reveal the setting as the character walks through it. What a great visual of how to sprinkle it in. Now if we can just keep our characters from sitting down! :-)

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JERI, glad the post helped. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Janet

Nicky Chapelway said...

Thanks, Janet, for your tips! I like the idea of the rat scurrying past, and I plan on adding it. Also you are right about him mishearing the instructions, it is a bit out of character for him. I changed it so that the note he received giving him the whereabouts of the meeting had gotten water damaged and so he could not make out the whole address.

And as for the trench coat... well I can't very well do a turtleneck and slacks because this is actually a book put in a historical setting, also there may or may not be zombies in my story so the more layers the better, even if they do impede your spying abilities...

Tina Radcliffe said...

"share the setting as the character walks through the scene, rather than doing a description dump at the opening of the scene."

Yes This is an excellent idea I plan to steal it. hehehe

Tina Radcliffe said...

Lee Child (Jack Reacher) weaves in setting so fluidly.

61 Hours

Five minutes to three in the afternoon. Exactly sixty-one hours before it happened. The lawyer drove in and parked in the empty lot. There was an inch of new snow on the ground, so he spent a minute fumbling in the foot well until his overshoes were secure. Then he got out and turned his collar up and walked to the visitor's entrance. There was a bitter wind out fo the north. It was thick with fat lazy flakes. There was a storm sixty miles away. The radio had been full of it.

Julie Lessman said...

JANET!!!

LOVE this post, especially the peppermint scene, which actually made me tear up!! Powerful points in this post, my friend!

Back when I used to read Nora Roberts, one of my favorite lines EVER in a book is from her novel called Irish Born. Although it's not exactly "setting" related, the reason I like it is because it sets up a family dynamic in a mere ten words, saying in that short span what might take a paragraph or two for other authors. So, in a sense, it is a setting because it sets the stage for this family. Here's the line:

My parents were lace-curtain Irish, righteous as three popes.

Great post, Janet!!

Hugs,
Julie

Julie Lessman said...

Mmm ... an example from one of my books ...

As you can see from the clip of mine you used (thank you, by the way, for using that!), I really like to correlate feelings with a setting. Another place that I did this is in A Heart Revealed, juxtapositioning the heroine's feelings with an awful setting that has stayed in my memory more than others in most of my books. Here it is:

“Why?” he asked quietly, and the word made her flinch, like a sudden shaft of light in a dark cellar where roaches and rats skittered. It was a question she didn’t want to answer . . . a question she’d hoped no one would ever ask. And yet, it hung between them now, a deadly noose, quivering in the wind.

Eons passed before she realized she hadn’t answered, only stared at him like some crazed woman who was deaf, unable to comprehend his words.

“Why, Emma?” he repeated, and she closed her eyes, painfully aware her creditor had finally come to call.

Shiver!!! Those roaches and rats get me every single time ... ;)

Hugs!!
Julie

Janet Dean said...

NICKY, I love your idea to have the note unreadable as the reason he's late.

Just ignore what doesn't work! I'm not up to speed when it comes to zombies. Go you!!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

TINA, thanks for sharing this Jack Reacher excerpt. The weather is making me nervous. All because of this line: Five minutes to three in the afternoon. Exactly sixty-one hours before it happened.

What happened?

Is it going to happen to this fastidious lawyer?

How's the weather involved? Will the snow become a factor?

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JULIE, I love that line and I've read it! Was this part of Nora's Irish trilogy? The lace curtains might not be part of the actual setting but Nora used that visual of setting to show the family in few well-chosen words that carry a powerful wallop.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JULIE, that excerpt carries the huge visual impact of setting!! A dark cellar, rats and cockroaches don't scare me half as much as that deadly noose quivering in the wind. Whoa girl! That shouts her DREAD of his question!

Janet

Tina Radcliffe said...

I know. So few words and I am nervous AND cold. So well done. For sure a page turner.

Caryl Kane said...

Janet, this is a great post. I love this quote by Kahlil Gibran - Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. I recently finished reading Song of Silence by Cynthia Ruchti. So many examples in this story of well-chosen words.

Please enter me in the draw for an SBC.

Janet Dean said...

TINA, if the story gets too scary, I'd set the book aside! The reason I read a lot of romance. Any HEA endings in these stories?

Janet

Janet Dean said...

CARYL, thanks for sharing the great quote! Song of Silence is an intriguing title. Must check out the story.

Well-chosen words.
Well-chosen details
Together with a great plot and characters make for a terrific read!

Janet

CatMom said...

Excellent post, Janet - - thank you SO much!
Just this morning I was thinking about the setting of my WIP, and how I need to polish it (hoping the reader will see the small town I've envisioned, LOL). Your tips and these examples are super helpful, so thank you again. :)
Now back to my writing (I'm *very* determined to get a lot of words written this week). :)
Hugs, Patti Jo

Tina Radcliffe said...

Happily Ever After as in the bad guys are caught and Reacher sets off on a new adventure. Hehehe

Janet Dean said...

PATTI JO, polish that small town and make it shine! To condense the points:

1. describe the setting here and there through the characters eyes.

2. use elements of the setting to show the character.

3. use an ordinary element of the setting that triggers a memory of his wound and ups the emotion of the story.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

TINA, I'll stick with a romance HEA, but Child's writing is amazing!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

I hope those that can will stop in at the Christian Fiction Reader's Retreat party tonight on Facebook. Ruthy kicks us off at 7:00 Eastern time. I'm on at 8:00. Stop by for a chance to win author's books.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1747770648832173/

Janet

Valri said...

Great post, Janet! I love all the things that make a book better because then I, as a reader, get to enjoy it more! :)

Chill N said...

Janet, thank you for this post. I struggle with how much setting to include. A struggle that isn't helped when the same contest entry has one judge commenting that the story needs more setting/descripton-- and another judge commenting that there is too much setting/description and it slows the pace :-D

Your point about using the setting to up the emotion made me think of this opener to "Winter's Camp" by Jodi Thomas:
"James Randall Kirkland took one last look at the sun's blinding light before heading into the canyon's narrow entrance. Shadows danced along the jagged walls as if holding secrets and danger below. The beauty of the rocks ribboned in the colors of the earth almost calmed his fears. Almost."

Boy, was I into the emotion by the end of that paragraph.

And speaking of emotion, the last two sentences in the peppermint scene in your post pull me right into the character.

Nancy C

Chill N said...

It took me a while to find the scene, but this setting in "The Bounty Hunger's Redemption" had me there in only two sentences:

Nate stepped through the open double doors of Stuffle Emporium, the scents of spices, kerosene, soap and vinegar warring in his nostrils. He zigzagged through a maze of tables piled with stacks of readymade clothing, linens, pots and pans.

I had already imagined the wood shelves and tin ceiling before they were included in the next paragraph :-)

Nancy C

Janet Dean said...

VALRI, I'm guessing Villager readers are pretty savvy on writing after all these craft posts! Either way, we love our readers! Thanks for stopping in!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

NANCY, judges do have differing opinions. My only suggestion is to see if you're using setting to show your characters and sprinkling it in or if you're writing longer passages of descriptions that could be in your point of view more than the characters. Just some things to think about.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

NANCY, thanks for sharing setting from The Bounty Hunter's Redemption. I think it helps that he's active--walking through the setting--as he's describing it.

Janet

Missy Tippens said...

Great post, Janet! I loved your examples. Makes me want to go re-write and do better! :)

Missy Tippens said...

Nancy C, I struggle, too. I tend to leave out description and almost always have to add it in after critiques. I often forget to set my scene at all!

Janet Dean said...

MISSY, that's a sure sign of a conscientious writer!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

MISSY, We all have craft areas that come more naturally and others are like pulling teeth. I mentioned to Elaine earlier that as a newbie, I would write dialogue with talking heads. My characters didn't move or think or interact with the setting. They just talked. LOL I'm so aware of that now and don't let that happen.

Janet

ohiohomeschool said...

So interesting. As a reader you put words to what I know in my heart about why I like a book.

Thanks.
Becky B.

Julie Lessman said...

Yes, Janet, that's part of Nora's Irish trilogy, which OF COURSE I read. Slap the word "Irish" on it, and I am soooooo there! ;)

Hugs,
Julie

Rebecca McLafferty said...

Wow, what a great lesson. These are the things that we remember, as both writers AND as readers. The memories..the actions, or smells or settings that touch our hearts, but are seldom spoken. These are the books that we love to read, the ones that "put us there". Excellent! Thank you!

Jackie Smith said...

Had trouble with blogger so am late to the party! I loved the post and comments. YAY for Seekerville. Please count me in for a SBC. Thanks!

Vince said...

Hi Janet:

What a helpful post! I'm late to the party. It seems I survived my heart procedure. The doctor shocked my heart chambers into all beating to the same drummer. I've slept most of yesterday but I still wanted to leave a comment about your post.

I have always given great importance to the effective use of setting. I think it is best to think of the setting as being an alive and organic character who is capable of having her own voice. This way the author can treat the setting as if it was a human with feelings and the capacity to elicit emotional reactions in other humans.

Abigail Gordon in "Summer Seaside Wedding" starts with one of my all time favorite, setting-centric, openings. Please note: I bought this book because of the medical topic and more specifically because of the location. I was not disappointed.


“It was June and the hot summer sun above made the confines of the car feel restricting as Leo Fenchurch drove along the road at the top of the cliffs in Bluebell Cove, a costal village in the Devonshire countryside.

“It had been a long morning. The first surgery of the day had been followed by home visits to the patients of the Tides Practice, where he was employed as one of the two doctors here, and now every time he glanced down at the sea, blue and dazzling as it danced onto the sandy beach, his collar felt tighter, his smart suit more a burden than an asset, and the yearning to pull into a deserted lay-by and change into the swimming trunks he always carried in the car was strong.”


(Note the 86-word sentence. This would probably give a contest judge a heart attack!)

BTW: I've found that the most effective setting details are those little things that a native of the location would notice but the casual tourist would not.

For example, if you use the Eiffel tower as a backdrop in a story, everyone knows you don't have to know anything about Paris to have heard of the Eiffel tower. However, if you use a little known fountain, Fontaines de la Concorde, or the cemetery where "La Dame aux Camélias", (Violetta in "La Traviata") is buried, (her actual name in real life was Marie Duplessis) then it's more like you're in the real Paris.

Come to think of it, I once read a science fiction story in which suburbs of Los Angeles where growing up on their own. No one was building them. The growth was literally organic. Now that's the idea!

Vince

Vince said...

One More Thing:

I want to thank all those who offered prayers for my successful outcome at the hospital. Those prayers seemed to have been surely answered. Seekerville is the best!

Vince

Janet Dean said...

BECKE B, thanks for your interest in what we authors try to do!

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JULIE, Nora has Irish roots. The stories felt very authentic.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

REBECCA, you nailed what we're trying to do with every book we write. Thanks for stopping by.

Janet

Janet Dean said...

JACKIE, better late than never. :-)

Janet

Janet Dean said...

VINCE, lots of prayers went up for you. We're so happy you're fine and back with us in Seekerville!

Thanks for the excerpt with such lovely details of setting that the readers will want to don bathing suits, too. :-)

Your point that lesser known details make a setting feel more authentic is excellent!

Janet