Wordsmith Wednesday–Setting

Old Mansion

Image by another.point.in.time via Flickr

How do you choose a setting for your novel, short fiction or poem? What role does setting serve? How can a place inspire your writing? These are only a few of the questions you want to ask yourself when you begin to write, no matter what the genre. And here is just a sampling of setting-issues for you to consider.

  • What kind of mood do I want to create? Setting is a means of creating atmosphere. It helps me to think about film. Consider Hitchcock’s Psycho or King’s The Shining in which darkness and gloom prevailed. Now compare that to Under Tuscan Skies, a movie about independence, love and freedom. Horror, romance, mystery–different genres call for different settings.
  • How well do I know the location I’ve chosen? Based on the role that setting will play in your story, you need to be attentive to accuracy. My first novel is set in the location where I live: Reno, Nevada, but my second I wanted to immerse myself in a city I love to visit: Chicago. That one took a lot more work. I visited Chicago, called upon the concierge of the hotel where I stayed to help me obtain some specific information, and sought out a couple of Chicagoans as consultants. You always have the option of “inventing” a place and in certain types of fiction, that’s just what you better do. Think: Hogwarts.
  • Can place inspire my writing? You bet. Those of us who write poetry will tell you that a number of poems write themselves while we’re walking the dogs or tramping in the woods. Many of us go to coffee shops or sit on park benches to capture moods, snippets of conversations, physical details. I enjoy trolling garage sales or thrift shops looking for untold stories.
  • Finally, how about setting as a character? All you have to do is think of John Steinbeck. (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row…) Or, how about Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby)

Can you add examples of how place has worked for you in your own fiction or poetry writing? Can you think of other novels that rely on setting. I’m currently reading Jane Eyre and just realized the importance of the role of those gloomy old mansions in the telling of the story. If you come up with something, please share in the comments.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Setting and Description

As a writer of fiction and poetry, I believe part of my responsibility to the reader is to allow her to travel places she has never been or to revisit places that are familiar, thus evoking memories or heightening awareness.

Long descriptive paragraphs of setting may disenchant the reader of today who’s used to momentary flashes of multiple images across a screen within a few second. (Does this relate to the high incidence of attention defecit disorder in our culture?)

Above all, setting and the use of sensory description enriches the reader’s experience. One way to use this technique is to break up dialogue. Here’s a brief example from my novel, “Winter is Past”:

“I wonder how Michael’s handling it. Do you think I should I call him?” Josh asked me.

“Will it help?” Based on Kathryn’s assessment, I had my doubts.

Josh shook his head and fixed his eyes on a quail eating seeds he’d planted in the flower garden. “Maybe not, but I can try; I’ll call after we eat. Honey, why did Kathryn ask you to take her to her appointments instead of Michael?” Josh grabbed the meat with tongs, slid it onto a plate and headed back into the house.

Even more valuable, in my opinion, is the writer’s ability to convey emotion through setting. Consider this brief passage from “Winter is Past” as a means of eliciting fear, sadness and powelessness: 

I trotted after Kathryn who jogged along the brick path beside our house. My eye caught sight of a tiny wren, cowering in the dense foliage of a rambling juniper shrub. Overhead, a majestic red-tailed hawk circled, squawking a message of certain doom at the tiny bird. I felt tears well up in my eyes then turned my attention back to Kathryn who now disappeared through the redwood gate.

In a previous post, I described a practice I use off and on. In your writing journal, at the end of each day, describe 5-10 things you have noticed throughout the day. Return to these lists for ideas to supplement your own writing then return to a scene you have written in which you have “told” rather than “shown” an emotion. Try rewriting it  using a bit of scenery or a background activity to elicit that same feeling. This is helpful to keep in mind when you are rewriting/revising your work as well.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process.