Sunday, February 21, 2010

How to Write a Novel 5: Setting, and the Importance thereof

Quote: “I am writing in the garden. To write as one should of a garden one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett

Song: Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack

Today I would like to talk about something really, really important to me, and something I feel gets overlooked quite a bit.

The setting.

I know, you probably think I am crazy. You’re sputtering into your coffee/tea/whiskey, “Every book has a setting! It’s hard to write one without it!”

This is true, loyal minions, very true. But not every book is well anchored in that setting.

Have you ever read a book that felt like it just sort of floated along? That the events and characters were compelling, but they almost seemed to occur in a vacuum? I think this is because of a lack of setting. Sure, you can describe the chair, or the book, or the smell of grass, but cursory description here and there doesn’t really make up for a lack of clear setting.

Let me elaborate, and keep in mind, all of this is just my opinion. You might think I am stark raving mad, and need to be locked up in a padded room. I don’t necessarily disagree with you either. But this works for me, and I saw a huge difference in my writing when I paid closer attention to setting than when I wasn’t. So maybe this will help you. It couldn’t hurt to at least think about it.

You’ve heard that books contain all the following: who (characters), what (plot), when, where, and why (theme, story question)? Setting covers the where? and when?

1. Where?

You know you need a place for your story to happen. You can’t get around this. Every if the entire story happens in the character’s mind, that is still a setting.

You have many different aspects to the setting, more than you might think. If you set a book in New York, then you have the city. You have the main character’s apartment, their kitchen, their bedroom, their job, the street they take to the bus, the bus itself, their best friend’s apartment, the parking garage…you get the point.

Am I being nitpicky? Yes, a little. But sometimes you have to nit-pick. You as the writer are creating a new world. Even if part of this world already exists, like a city set on Earth, you can’t assume that everyone already knows what the city looks like. You definitely can’t assume that everyone already knows what your character’s apartment looks, or their friend’s apartment looks like.

You also have fun things like the weather and season to think about. Is it summer? Spring? Hot? Cold? The rainy season? Tornado weather? Even small details like these can build to add atmosphere and resonance to your story, sometimes even conflict and suspense if there’s a bad storm keeping the character from getting on a crucial flight.

How your character views the setting is also a really great way to characterize them. Does your character feel uncomfortable in large cities? Does she assume she’s about to be mugged? Or she is perfectly at home? Both attitudes shows something about your character, but it SHOWS us what your character thinks, instead of just telling us.

These are just some reasons to pay more attention to your setting, but first, here’s how.


"Ahhhhhhhhhh!” squeal the minions, “It hurts us! It burns us!”

I know. Not everyone can be weird like me and enjoy research. But it’s necessary.

How much research you do, and when, and how, is a personal call. Some people like to do their research after they write the book, because then you only research the stuff you need to know. I like to do it before, because I always suspect I could have worked the details into the story better if I had known it all along. I look at it this way: my main character is walking through Central Park. She knows what she sees, so I should too. You never know when some nifty bit of research can serve as a plot point, too. You might need a fancy restaurant to set the proposal scene in, and find the perfect restaurant in real life. Huzzah!

This research I consider part of worldbuilding, and I treat the material the same way I would treat a city I made up myself. I have only been to New York City a few times myself, but there are lots of people living there. I better make sure I do my research properly, because if I state the Empire State Building is in Spanish Harlem, there will be a lot of unhappy readers. Not because they are looking for ways to call you out (although there are some people like that), but because you threw them out of the story, because they immediately knew it wasn’t true. You ruined their suspension of disbelief.

But, on the flip side, even if you have pages and pages of facts about the place your book is set in, that doesn’t mean cram every single bit in there. The setting should be in the background, a line or two of description here and there. I like to imagine the setting seeped organically into the story, holding it up, like a plate holds your food. That’s why I like to research the setting a least a little bit before writing.

“But, why even bother at all if you’re not going to use most of the information?” You may be wondering.

Case in point: Go to a world map, and drop your finger down on a random city in a random country. (No really, do it) Now, write a brief scene, even if it’s just a paragraph, about your favorite, most fleshed out character (so you can’t claim it was from not knowing your character well enough) going to the market in this town.


Now, write the same scene, using the same character (or a different one), about the character going to the market you personally shop at all the time.



Now compare the two. Do you see how specific and vivid your last scene is, the one where you knew what the aisles looked like in the store, and what sort of food they carried there? Do you see how vague and general your other scene is?

This is an extreme example of course. Most people know a least a little bit about their setting, but I wanted the exercise to be extreme, so you could see what I was talking about. When you really know a place, you know what it looks like, smells like, what sort of people frequent there, the slang, the customs, you carry that with you as you write, and your characters instinctively drawn from that knowledge. The characters feel like they are in a real place, because the place IS real, even if it’s a city you made up, because it exists within you. Just as you can’t write a character that you don’t know well, you struggle the same way with the setting. It’s just less obvious. No one is going to write to you about how there’s a description of a Queen Anne chair missing on page 104, but a book with a researched setting will feel different. It will feel more complete, more real.

Again, let me stress this does not mean cramming paragraphs worth of description into your books. But the better you know what the places in your story looks like, down to the last detail, the better your readers will too.

2. How?

Okay, so you’re all pumped up about setting! Yay! One problem: your setting either doesn’t exist in the real world, or you don’t have the money to fly to Paris and spent weeks learning the customs, language and culture.

Our friend the Internet jumps in to save the day.

There are literally thousands of websites about different places in the world. You can use Googlemaps to get street names of the smallest towns (and feel vaguely like a stalker while doing it). Travel brochures are a good start, but usually not specific enough for my tastes. Do some fact checking. Make sure the flowers you describe in full bloom can actually bloom during that time, and can grow there. No, not every plant can grow in the same place. Make sure the mountain lion that mauled the main character are actually wild in that area.

Here in Georgia, lilacs can’t grow, because the ground hardly ever freezes. Apparently lilac bushes need that freeze time to grow, or hibernate or something. We have hydrangea bushes, and the Magnolia “bushes” can grow to the size of a small tree, but no lilacs, much to my disappointment when we moved down here. It seems like such a little detail, but again, it just takes you one step closer to making your readers believe in the story you’re telling.

You can also go to writing forums and make a post about how you’re writing about such and such city, and can anyone tell you what it’s like to live there? Again, these are generalizations, but the more information you have, the better off you are.

You might tell yourself that no one will notice if you write about mountain lions and lilac in Atlanta, but they will. Not ever single reader will, but depending on your guffaws, there will be people who know that mountain lions are not ingenious to Georgia, and neither are lilacs. Of course, no one is perfect, but these mistakes do add up over time. Why have them at all if you can avoid it? All it takes is just a little bit of research.

And if you tell yourself you’re only going to write stories set in the town you currently live in so you don’t have to bother with research, and because you’re scared you’re going to mess up, you’re cheating yourself of a great opportunity. Where your story is set can add so much. I have a book about mermaids. Where did I set it?

If you picture island immediately, you’re correct. Hawaii to be exact, despite the fact that I have never been there in my life. BUT there are a lot of websites with pictures, and descriptions. I even found a real estate website about beach houses, so I know what the house looks like. These tiny details will add up over time and either help your book, or hurt it. If you think where your story is set doesn’t matter, try to picture it in the completely opposite setting. If it’s set on a tropical island, set in a land locked Eastern European country. If it’s set in a city, put it in the middle of nowhere. Do you see how differently things are?

3. When?

What time period is your book set it? You might want to at least have a few year range in mind, even if you don’t outright state the exact date. Especially recently, technology will give you away. If your character is using the Internet like it’s nothing, the book will take place fairly recently. Mentioning music can date your book, as can fashion, movies, and celebrities.

Your time period becomes a bigger deal though, if you set it during a time we aren’t familiar with, like the 1800’s back. Maybe even the early 1900’s depending on the story. Everything will change: the values that are important, the social graces, the technology, all of it. If you write historical fiction, make sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Even the expressions you use in the writing can become archaic if you use a phrase not invented until after the time period. So yes, you historical fiction writers, have fun with that.

I actually tried to write two historical fiction books, one set in medieval Japan and the other set in medieval Europe. I hardly found anything on Japan other than basics, and not too much more information on Europe. You have to be really, really dedicated to research if you want to set a book in a foreign time period, and I felt like no matter how much research I did, I still wouldn’t get it right. So I decided to make a new planet, and put the story ideas there. This way, I could make up what I wanted, and no one could contradict me. :P

4. Worldbuilding from the Ground Up

Fantasy/science fiction writers have a special duty to setting, because we’re writing about places that no one has ever been. We can’t just hop a plane to Middle Earth (though wouldn’t that be AWESOME?!), so Tolkien had tell us about it.

However, notice how Tolkien told the story first, and the worldbuilding bits were worked into the story flawlessly. That’s what you need to try to do when you’re telling us about New York City or some made up place.

Actually, I file this under “information” anyway, along with the character’s back story. I might know all about their terrible third grade year, but that might never come up in the story. You should only give the reader the information they need to understand the story. Your definition of “understand” might vary from mine though, and that’s how we have some authors who described each piece of fruit in the bowl, and other authors who don’t even describe the room the characters are in. Too far in either direction, and you’re in trouble.

A good litmus test to see if you’re putting too much information in your story is to write in the margin next to that bit of information what question this information is supposed to answer. If the question has already been answered elsewhere, find a way to condense or cut it entirely.

I love worldbuilding, and I spend weeks (or longer depending on the project) on it. I have lots of worldbuilding sheets, and facts, and all kinds of STUFFS about worldbuilding. It’s like a grown up version of playing house, okay? (or playing trucks if you are a boy)

You may not. You may hate it. But whether you’re researching a real city, or a place that only exits in your dreams, try to make sure the readers can share in your visions as well.

Tomorrow ia blogfest day! Yaaaay! I can't wait for you guys to meet my characters...Okay, deep breaths.

And after that, I will talk about dialogue, the misunderstood child of novel writing.

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