The Writer’s Life: Setting

The Writer’s Life from A to Z

“Place is a definer and a confiner of what I’m doing. […] it saves me. Why, you couldn’t write a story that happened nowhere.” — Eudora Welty

Writing any sort of creative work is taxing on the author. There’s so much to consider: character voice, plot, story arch, etc., that sometimes elements that are vital to the telling of your story are left neglected by the wayside. One of the most commonly overlooked and undervalued components of an author’s work is the treatment of setting.

In this month’s “How-To,” author Jaden Terrell explores what makes setting vital, what it can do, and ways to craft settings that are powerful and provide substance to the work as a whole.

The Importance of Setting: Macro vs. Micro

By Jaden Terrell

Imagine a Miss Marple mystery without the small-town ambience of St. Mary Meade, Gorky Park without the brutal Russian winter, Heart of Darkness without the stultifying heat. Imagine The Lord of the Flies without the island or Sex in the City without the city.

Doesn’t work, does it? Without their settings, each is a completely different book than the original.

Every story takes place somewhere. Events occur in a particular time and a particular place, each of which affects what happens and how the people involved interpret those events. This is true even of fantasy novels and modern fiction set in imaginary towns. Middle Earth and Gotham City may not be places you can visit outside your imagination, but they are “real” places nonetheless, in that each is vividly portrayed with specific details unique to that place.

Think that seems obvious? Not necessarily. Inexperienced writers often make the mistake of moving their characters through “fuzzy space,” amorphous settings that leave the dialogue and action unmoored in time and space. A conversation takes place in a bar, in a kitchen, on a hilltop, in a concentration camp, but the specifics of the setting are so vague that the characters might as well be saying their lines in front of a green screen. What’s missing are the specific, carefully chosen details that put your readers in a scene and keep them there.

Strategically placed, specific sensory details can help bring your settings to life and add an additional layer of authenticity to your story. At the beginning of each scene, you should give your readers enough information to ground them in the setting. Your readers should always know when and where they are. This will help prevent “talking head syndrome” and keep your characters from seeming to float in a formless void.

Look at how Robert Crais uses vivid details to establish setting and create tension in the opening of The Promise: An Elvis Cole and Joe Pike Novel:

The woman stood in the far corner of the dimly lit room, hiding in shadows like a fish in gray water. She was small, round, and dumpy. The fringed leather jacket probably made her seem rounder, but she’d never been a looker. She reminded Mr. Rollins of an overripe peach, and the peach was clearly afraid.

A steady rain fell from the overcast night. The dingy, one-bedroom bungalow west of Echo Park reeked of bleach and ammonia, but the windows were closed, the shades were down, and the doors were locked. A single yellow twenty-five-watt lamp provided the only light. The chemical smell gave Mr. Rollins a headache, but he could not open the windows. They were screwed shut.

The locked doors, the reek of bleach and ammonia, the screws holding the windows shut…these all help create a claustrophobic feeling in the reader. The peach is frightened, and we begin to feel she has reason to be.

And look at this brief but evocative opening from Gorky Park: All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.

This line just before we witness detectives investigating bodies frozen in the snow. Doesn’t it set you up to think about the nights less dark, the winters less warm, and the headlights dimming in the swirling snow?

Setting works best when the details are experienced through the senses of a particular character (or narrator). We all see the world through our own filters. This subjective experience of reality is one reason eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Ask eight different witnesses to a bank robbery what happened, and you’ll get eight different accounts. None of them are lying, but each one’s memory is colored by his or her memories, beliefs, emotions, visual acuity, and other factors too numerous to list. It’s the common bits that lead to the true picture. If all eight people, without prior collusion, say the bank robber had a limp and a velociraptor tattoo, there’s a very good chance he did.

But that which is a headache for a homicide detective is a boon for a writer. Imagine two teenaged girls at a carnival. One is cheerful, upbeat, optimistic. The other is cynical and angry. Watch how each interprets the same scene in a different way.

The midway was a kaleidoscope of color. Everywhere you looked were flashing lights and bold colors, and the air smelled of cotton candy and funnel cakes, all warm and sugary. A little girl bumped my hip as she skipped past. She peered around the giant stuffed T-Rex she was hugging, and we shared a grin as her mother led her away. It was like Christmas on steroids.

The midway was an assault on the senses—garish colors, flashing lights, screaming kids. It reminded me of a crime scene. The air was so sticky sweet I could hardly breathe. As I turned to make my escape, a kid carrying a giant plush dinosaur plowed into me, bounced off, and gave me a malicious grin. For a moment, I imagined pinching that grin right off her face. Then her mother yanked her away and she disappeared into the crowd.

Bet you had no trouble telling which was which.

Setting can be used to create atmosphere, reveal character, or drive the plot. In many cases, it can do all three. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Create Atmosphere
Reed Farrel Coleman has been called “the noir poet,” and the name fits him well. Listen to how, in his short story “The Terminal,” he describes Cony Island as seen through the eyes of a man whose decision to help a young woman brings him into conflict with local gangsters. This moment is a great example of a description that creates atmosphere and reveals character at the same time.

Doc turned his back to the ocean and beheld the amusement park’s moth-eaten splendor. From where he stood, in the first light of morning, it still looked a grand place. At that distance, it all seemed in working order. Even the Parachute Jump seemed ready to shine again. From Doc’s place in the sand, he thought, you might be able to fool yourself that the sun-faded, blue-finned Astroland rocket atop Gregory and Paul’s food stand might fire up its engines and blast off. You had to get much closer to see the truth of it, the rust and folly of the place.

The setting evokes a sense of nostalgia, but it also echoes Doc’s feelings about himself—a man whose best years are behind him, a man who may have made one too many mistakes.

And how about the opening to Glendon Swarthout’s tragicomic coming-of-age novel, Bless the Beasts and the Children?

In that place the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through pines and passed and was collected by the cliffs. There was a phenomenon of pines in such a place. When wind died in a box canyon and in its wake the air was still and taut, the trees were not. The passing trembled in them, and a sough of loss. They grieved. They seemed to mourn a memory of wind.

Isn’t this bleak wilderness, with its sense of loneliness and loss, the perfect backdrop for a bittersweet tale about six troubled teenagers who, after witnessing the culling of a herd of buffalo in a “canned hunt,” strike out on their own to try and save the next day’s cull?

Reveal Character
How characters maneuver through or manipulate a setting can tell you a lot about them. The Darth Vader figurine on your banker’s desk makes a statement, as do the Tiger Beat posters on the bedroom walls of a 70s-era teen.

Nancy Sartor’s debut suspense novel, Bones Along the Hill, opens in Neva Oakley’s family mortuary, where she’s reconstructing the face of a murdered infant. The funeral home provides a unique backdrop in which we get to know and understand Neva, and as she recreates the face of the child, we see her talent, her compassion, and her determination.

In A Cup Full of Midnight, my detective, Jared McKean, follows a woman down a hallway and into an immaculate living room. The hall is lined with photos of her dead children, and on the living room wall is a hand-sewn heirloom bonnet and christening gown in a frame. The setting shows the ongoing grief and loss that motivate the character.

Drive Plot
Setting can also influence the direction of your novel. A story set in a Minnesota snowstorm forces the characters to deal with the risk of frostbite and exposure, the hazards of driving in deep snow and ice, and the threat of losing forensic evidence to the weather. Trying to track a killer? Better find him before the snow covers his tracks.

Imagine an altercation occurring in a commercial garage versus a pool hall versus a bridal shop. What weapons are near to hand? What kind of cover is available? A fight scene set in one of these three places would be very different from one set in either of the other two.

Rob Pobi uses a hurricane to raise the stakes and heighten suspense in his novel Bloodman. As the action of the story rises, so does the violence of the storm. The hurricane works on a thematic level, but it also drives the narrative, as characters react to the growing danger of the storm.

Macro & Micro Settings
There are two main types of settings in your novel—macro-settings and micro-settings. The macro setting is the region, city, state, etc. where the story as a whole takes place. The micro settings are the specific places where individual scenes take place.

A macro-setting might be the Outer Banks, New York City, Chicago, Nashville, or New Orleans. When writing about macro-settings, you need to consider things like climate, terrain, architecture, and culture.

Micro-settings might include an abandoned warehouse, the living room of a suspect, the victim’s basement, the protagonist’s favorite restaurant, or an interrogation room at the local police station. When writing about micro settings, you should take into account things like décor, building structure, objects at hand, and so on. If you’re describing a person’s kitchen, what are the telling details that will reveal both the character perceiving the room and the one who lives there?

Making Setting Work for You
What’s the macro-setting of your novel? When you think of this setting, what comes to mind in terms of climate and temperature, weather patterns, and landscape? If it’s an inhabited area, what is the architecture like? The traffic patterns? The time period? What’s the culture? Is there a festival or other special event going on? Can you think of a way for the macro-setting to influence the plot—a storm, a drought, a hurricane?

Now, think about your micro-settings. Remember your list of clues? The ones your character needs in order to solve the mystery or stop the bomb from exploding? Think about where (s)he might find those clues. Try to set your scenes in a variety of places. A pub can be a great setting for an interview with a potential witness, but a dozen pub interviews dilutes the effectiveness of the pub as a setting.

Does your sleuth interview someone in his or her living room? What details can you use to show the character of the person who lives there?

Try making a list of all the micro-settings in your novel. Free write a description of each. Don’t censor yourself; visualize the setting and write down everything you can think of. Be sure to include other senses as well. (If it’s a real setting, consider going there and writing down everything you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.) Now take a highlighter and go back and read your descriptions. Highlight the most telling details, the ones that encapsulate the place and the person whose space it is.

Are you starting to see scenes in each of these settings? If so, jot down your ideas. We’re going to use them in next month’s lesson.

Beth TerrellJaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to “Now Write! Mysteries” (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy.

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