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:: Archived Articles ::

Act One: Scene Two
Settings and Senses

Published In The Kiss of Death, May/June 2008

All stories have settings, because no book is ever adrift in nowhere. There is a time and a place where the action must take place. This time and place could be in the past; it could be a historical set in the old west or highland Scotland. A contemporary romance might be set in a small town or a big city, either of which, with today’s modern technology of television and movies, the reader might already have a sense of. A novel can also be set well into the future, in a place where no reader has been and only the words the writer creates can put the background, the locale into perspective.

The setting is the neighborhood or city where your book is set. It’s the hotel room your hero just checked into while he evades the law. It’s the house where your heroine is baking the cookies for her two sons.

Settings add more than a backdrop to the plot. It’s what pulls the reader in and lets them have the same sensory experience the characters are living though.

The setting of the novel is sometimes as pivotal to the story as who is in it. What city the heroine lives in can help determine what type of person she will be. Was she raised in a Brooklyn apartment complex with noisy neighbors; or is she a small town girl who only knew crickets and bird calls from her bedroom window?

The validity of a paranormal or a historical or a science fiction novel can be made or broken by how the setting is staged. Is the house up on the hill, with its one single light seeping through the rolling fog, is it creepy enough to put the reader on edge? Is the Texas ranch is 1886 described in enough detail without over-taking the story?

Because that is the job of the setting. It is the part of the story that gets in and gets out without getting in the way.

Says Allison Brennan: "In terms of setting the scene... , if it’s important to the story, ground your reader in a few key details and move on. I’m not one for long descriptive passages; but I do want to know that there’s a fire escape in the heroine’'s apartment if that same fire escape is going to be important later in the story.”

Other times, a setting might be an extension of the characters. In Hollywood writer Joss Whedon’s short lived television series, Firefly, as well as its subsequent movie, Serenity, the space ship, Serenity, where the crew lived, was often refereed as “the tenth character.” If this is the case in your novel, weaving the information of the setting must be done subtly. The reader must understand the importance of the backdrop without the backdrop overpowering what is happening around it.

Jack Bickman, author of the Writer's Digest Elements of Fiction Writing: Settings, "When writers think of the word setting, they think of the physical impressions of the story world: the look, sound and smell of the place or places where the story takes place.”

World building is essential, both in contemporary and in other types of novels. Details must be worked out in the planning stage of the writing and then adhered as “canon”. “Canon” is the law of a novel: if your other world has two moons on page one, then it has two moons on page three-hundred. If your vampires can take sunlight when you begin, they can take sunlight when you end. Once a “canon” is established in the story and in the novel, then it must be adhered to. Period.

Notes authors Cheyenne McCray and Cassie Ryan, “you do have to be careful when you are world building. If you are writing a sci-fi and your alternate universe has two moons, then you have to take into account how those two moons are going to effect the planet: the growing cycle, the tides.”

A book set in New Orleans’ French Quarter is going to have a different feel than a story set in San Francisco, California or Seattle, Washington. The trick is to find out what best serves your characters, their backgrounds and the story you have to tell.

Setting is portrayed in the novel though the use of description and the five senses. Sight, sounds, taste, smell and feel can take a two dimensional scene portrayed in black and white on the page and make it come alive in full 3D in a reader’s head.

“She stood on the shore...” evokes a whole different portrait than “the warm sand seeped up between the toes of her bare feet; the soft, salt-scented air blowing her hair off her shoulders...”

You want to tease senses in your story so that your reader will recognize and be able to put into perceptive, things that they might they might not otherwise recognize. A reader may be a city dweller and not know to recognize the smell of a skunk from distance, but they will know of “the foul smell that makes them want to cover their nose and gag, even from 100 paces away...”

Give the reader something to think about. Put them in your book by grabbing them by the throat and having them see what your characters see, smell what they smell and feel what they feel.

Researching your setting is equally important. The Internet can be great for viewing streets and houses and restaurants in the area. Check out the real estate section of the town or city you are using. Check out the Chamber of Commence and the local tourist board and see what they can tell you. Call the Chamber and ask for a “relocation packet” and they will send you an envelop full of tasty treats on what you are looking for. Look at your local chain bookstore’s travel section and see if they have any books on your local.

For the really dedicated, visit the site of your book. Says one author, “I wanted to use part of the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. I arrived onboard for my three days stay at their hotel, showed my business card to the manager at the front desk and explained I was working on a novel. They allowed me access to the ship that otherwise was off limits. They even let me into all of their exclusive, extremely expensive suites and allowed me to shoot pictures.”

Vicki Lewis Thompson, 2008’s winner of The Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, says this: “As for settings, my advice is to either use a big city or a small imaginary town. In a big city, you can research locations and landmarks easily on the Internet if you’re not completely familiar with the city, and you can create little imaginary neighborhoods that ‘could’ exist even if they don’t. My favorite setting is an imaginary small town where I can build it from the ground up. That’s what I did with Big Knob, Indiana, the setting for my Hex series. I tried to capture the flavor of the southern part of Indiana where I lived as a kid, but the actual town doesn’t exist except in my mind, and that means nobody can correct my description of streets and landmarks.”

Building a setting for your novel is as important as building every other aspect: characters, plot line, internal and external conflict. Think about what you want to portray, what the feel of the world is that your characters live in. Figure it out and find it or build it from the ground up. Anyway you go about doing it, if you lay your setting and world building down, you will have created the best possible foundation for your book.

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