Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Come and Stay Awhile: The Importance of Setting

I don't know about you, but setting is harder for me to tackle in a novel, especially if I haven't been to the place I'm writing about. And even if I have, there's still that stuff I need to check out.

I have been on a cruise, but I didn't know what happened behind the scenes. I didn't know what the captain's quarters looked like or where the food was stored. I had questions about crew cabins, jobs on a cruise ship, and what happens when someone dies on board.

Yes, this means I did some research for my book, Sunny Side-Up, though I could draw on my experience as a passenger to complete the setting.

Setting is a valuable asset to your book or short story, because with setting you get a feeling for where the characters are standing and participating. You aren't in some void, rather, the setting contributes to the characters in the book and vice versa.

Photo by: CJ Isherwood, courtesy of Flickr
San Francisco
Photo by: Dougtone, courtesy of Flicker
New Jersey
In my first mystery, Scrambled, the people living in the Hotel Camaro reflected the condition of the hotel itself, which was badly in need of renovation. And since I'd never stepped foot in an old east coast hotel, I had to do some studying to make the setting right. I couldn't just use what I remembered about San Francisco to make it right, for example.

Setting isn't just about tree placement, or having a garden or making the sky blue, the setting reflects the story in a very real way and contributes to your character's success.

You want your reader to put of their feet and stay awhile. But you don't want them to get too comfortable. That's why there's tension and conflict to balance out the beautiful trees and meandering stream. That's why the old hotel with loosening bathroom fixtures, still has room to show it's beautiful wooden cornices.

Though a huge dose of setting at any given time is usually skipped over by the reader, a sprinkling of it in between dialogue lends depth and interest to your story. Are people talking all of the time? Even in real life there is time for reflection and quietness. And that's what you want in your story.

You want your reader to see the world that the character lives in. You want your reader to know why they live where they do, and how the world in which they live contributes to their happiness or lack of it.

If you can do this, your readers will want to prop up their feet and stay awhile.

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