Setting Sets the Mood

Setting sets the mood in a story just as efficiently and vividly as character. If I combine the two components, not only do I set the mood, I am well on my way to hooking readers’ attention and immersing them in my story.

Below are three examples of how descriptions of setting in the opening paragraphs establish mood and the personality of the main character.

“The Cloak” by Robert Bloch

The author sets the mood right away for this Halloween story. “The sun was dying, and its blood spattered the sky as it crept into a sepulchre behind the hills.” These are the thoughts of Henderson, who is looking for a costume shop in 1930’s New York City. He scolds himself for his flight of fancy and then describes the sunset as just “dingy red”.

Henderson likes the idea of all the ancient terror Halloween evokes but still wants to be a rational, twentieth century American. The short story combines and clashes the age-old legends of vampires with a high society costume party. In four short paragraphs, Mr. Bloch has established the setting, the mood of the story and the character, and a great amount of tension.

“The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The day on which lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty”. In the first paragraph, Mr. Wodehouse goes on to describe a fine summer day in England. The second paragraph completely changes course by discussing how fans of thrillers don’t want pretty descriptions. They want the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the crime, and the author had better get on with it.

Mr. Wodehouse has created not just the image of a tranquil summer day but the breezey tone for a comic story about members of an earl’s household taking potshots at an annoying guest with an air gun. The description lets readers know exactly what kind of story they’ve settled down to read, and the author doesn’t disappoint.

“A Rose from the Ashes” by JPC Allen

I wanted my first scene to establish a lonely, eerie mood for my YA Christmas mystery. My main character Rae is a amateur photographer. This influences how she sees the world. When describing the sunset on a December evening, she thinks about how “gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray, stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.”

To emphasize the loneliness of the place, as well as the Rae’s loneliness, I use “a few caws from crows and sighs as the wind sailed through empty window frames.” I’m making my setting work hard, providing a background for the action, developing my main character’s personality, and creating symbols to represent my character’s feelings.

At the end of the story, I wanted to let readers know something unusual is going to happen. Rae is back at the “gray, stone building,” which is an abandoned children’s home, on Christmas Eve. The moon is almost full on a frigid, clear night and brings “an otherworldly silver sheen, like the home and all the land outside was bathed in a fairy spell.” Rae is hoping she will find her father, and he will accept her. The otherworldly light represents the main character’s hope and foreshadows the plot twists.

A Word About Symbolism

In Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, he recommends not consciously working in symbolism. If you do, the symbolism will seem obvious and heavy-handed to readers. So how do you include symbolism if you can’t do it consciously? Mr. Rozelle says to write your story the best you can, and then when you review it, you may find that settings or characters or objects have naturally become symbols.

That happened in my story, but I didn’t realize until I was helping my oldest child with an extremely tough question for a language arts assignment. He had to find passages in a story that showed a change in a character through a change in how he or she viewed a setting. We were both stumped. Then I remembered my short story, which had just been published. How Rae views the abandoned children’s home reflects her feelings at the time, at first lonely, then hopeful.

I was surprised I’d included symbolism in my story. And happy that I helped my oldest complete his homework.

What stories have you read in which the setting sets the mood particularly well?

Who Will You Create for This Setting?

For this month’s last prompt about setting, I chose a picture with no characters in it. I’d like you to let it spark your creativity and people it with characters you like.

So who will you create for this setting? Maybe you need to select a genre first. The setting could work with just about any of them. Newly engaged woman in 1880’s New York City is waiting for her fiancé. A father who runs a bed-and-breakfast in an old Victorian house receives devastating news. The domed flower arrangement is actually a powerful weapon, and a curious child enters the room.

I usually start with characters. My first thought was an old woman. The home has been in her family for over one hundred years, and she decorates it in antiques. She is the wealthiest person in her small town.

Since I love mysteries, I’ve decided that the old woman is sitting in this room when the chief of police and another officer stop by. They’ve been investigating a series of murders, and the chief believes the old woman knows more than she’s telling. Fully aware that this interview may cost him his job, the chief walks into the room.

Who will you create for this setting? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Setting Fuels Character, Character Fuels Setting

Writers often offer advice on plot, setting, and character as if they were distinct story devices that barely had any association with each other until a writer pulls them into a story. But those three components are all interwoven. Since my theme this month is setting, this post will focus on how setting fuels characters and character fuels setting. If some plot creeps into the article, I can’t help it. Plot, setting, and character are a tight knit family, and I never know when one will come barging in to hang out with the other two.

In real life, environments shape the people who live in them. I’ve lived in a rural county in Ohio for the past fourteen years. I see the world differently from my sisters, although we all grew up in the same small town. They have spent the past several years living in suburbs that are less than an hour’s drive from me. Our homes, and the events that have occurred in them, influence who we are

Pick a setting, any setting

Let’s say I want to write a mystery set on the coast of North Carolina, near Emerald Isle. If my characters have lived by the sea all their lives, that environment will fuel their development. If a man is a fisherman, he can realistically be hard-working and stoic because he learned he must work with the sea when it turns nasty on him. Or he could be hard-working and laid back, having learned he can’t control the ocean but must roll with the punches it metes out.

Emerald Isle is a huge vacation destination. I can believably add characters who are not from that area. Fish-out-of-water stories are a lot of fun as characters clash in a setting familiar to some and alien to others.

In my North Carolina mystery, the fisherman takes several city dudes on a chartered fishing trip. One of the dudes is very snobbish. Another is very competitive. Maybe a powerful entrepreneur or rising politician. A third is new to fishing and very excited about his first ocean fishing trip. One of the vacationers dies on the boat under mysterious circumstances.

When the police suspect the fisherman, he and several other charter boat captains play amateur detectives because they don’t want an unsolved murder to adversely affect their businesses. So careful thought about my setting has let the setting fuel character and characters fuel setting.

In my Work-In-Progress (WIP), my main character Rae is trying to fit into a rural county in Ohio as she gets to know her father and his family for the first time. She grew up in the South, moving many times with her mother before she died. Rae is used to small town living but has never had a chance to put down roots.

Rae is an introvert and shy. She would like to make friends but feels she isn’t good at it because she could never make lasting friends anywhere she and her mother lived. The frequent changes in her environment fuel her personality.

What stories do you know in which setting fuels character and character fuels setting?

Immerse Readers in the Setting

If a story can snag my attention with a unique voice for a character, I’m hooked. But a unique description that draws me into a setting does the same thing. I want to be able to do that, to immerse readers in the setting so completely that when they finish my story, they will feel like they have taken a trip to that setting.

Below are two examples of stories in which the authors describe the settings so well, I visit them again and again.

“Summer Job” by Amanda Witt from Life is Short and Then You Die

This crime short story is set in rural West Texas. I have never been to rural West Texas, but after reading this story, I feel like I have.

Ms Witt begins by giving a description of a house that burned to the slab. She uses words like “broken back of the roof” and “half-melted hull of the stove” and moves on to describe the chimney that still stands tall against the sky like a tombstone. Although the first paragraph doesn’t mention a single character, I was already hooked, wondering about the burned house and the loneliness of the West Texas countryside would play into the plot.

In the second paragraph, the author introduces Pete, a high school boy, hired by the late owner’s son to clear away the burnt debris and salvage whatever he can. Throughout the story, Ms. Witt emphasizes the heat of the Texas summer, the destruction of the fire, and Pete’s isolation as he works. Those three factors anchored me in a setting suitable for a crime story. I experienced the scorching temperatures, the filthy, hard work, and increasing concern over Pete’s safety as he pieces together who killed Mrs. Dean, the homeowner and his former babysitter.

“The Sign of the Broken Sword” by G.K. Chesterton from The Innocence of Father Brown

This is another mystery short story in which the author waits to introduce the main characters. Mr. Chesterton sets the stage by describing a very cold night in England. “The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver. In a sky of dark green-blue-like slate the stars were bleak and brilliant like splintered ice.” The first paragraph goes on in this vein, underlining the cold and the dark, a perfect setting for two friends to uncover the truth behind a national hero’s death.

The author brings the frigid night to such vivid life that at the end of the story, when Father Brown and his friend Flambeau find a tavern, I was relieved to get inside. Mr. Chesterton uses words like “cozy”, “luxurious”, and “comfortable”, to emphasize the change in setting and contrast it to the stark, winter weather outside.

In both stories, written over a hundred years apart, the authors use precise language to immerse readers in the setting. Ms. Witt doesn’t write that the roof is damaged but has a “broke back”. In the Father Brown story, the sky isn’t black but a specific shade of slate. These authors wordsmithed their stories, so that every word contributed to the desired effect of making the settings seem real.

Another author would have chosen different words if he used the burned house in West Texas as a coming-of-age story. In that case, the author would emphasize different aspects of the setting to set a different tone, maybe the beauty of the surrounding land. If he wanted to focus on the isolation of the home, he might use it as a way to show the main character’s maturity.

For more advice on settings, go to my post on how to maximize your settings.

What stories have you read that immersed you in the setting?

Dive into this Fantasy Setting

I am having trouble with this post, so I’m reposting it.

This is a prompt for a fantasy setting. Our descriptions are only limited by our imaginations. But we still have to use our five senses to perceive the setting and then relay those perceptions to the reader.

What are the lines swirling around the woman. Is it mist? Does it feel wet? Is it electrical? Can she feel the charge? Do the lines carry an aroma? Or a stench? Like I said in last week’s post, I should jot down everything that would apply to the five senses as well as how the setting makes the POV character feel. Then I would see how many of those notes I would need for my story.

I’d love to hear how you would dive into this fantasy setting.

Walking as Writing Inspiration

I checked the time on my phone after an appointment in Worthington, Ohio. I wanted to get in my morning walk since walking has provided me with a ton of writing inspiration. The clock said I could fit it in. So I started off. Walking through the neighborhoods off the main street of Worthington is interesting because there are so many old houses. And I love old houses.

The road dipped down to a bridge, and ahead, I saw a house completely different from the others I had passed. Instead of being built in a Victorian or Federal or Craftsman style, it looked like somebody had moved a science fiction set into a heavily wooded valleyin the heart of Columbus. I had stumbled upon Rush Creek Village.

This housing development began in the 1950’s. All the homes followed the principles of organic architecture, a style developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I really enjoyed exploring the neighborhood and taking photos. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t taken to my feet.

Since I began walking regularly five years, ago, I have discovered so many settings I file away for future stories. If I had been driving or stuck to my usual routes to get to and from places, I would have missed so many fascinating areas both where I live and in places I visited.

Benefits of Walking a Setting

If there is any way I can, I try to walk the settings of my stories. I can’t beat the benefits.

  • Walking slows me down. Even if I’m looking for a setting for a car chase, I still want to walk it. Walking helps me sees details I wouldn’t noticed if I drove by or looked at photos. It also slows down my brain, allowing me to appreciate my surroundings.
  • Walking allows me to use all five senses. Virtual tours of a location gives you the sights, but only walking it will stimulate the other senses.
  • Walking gives me confidence when writing. Because I’ve actually visited the place I’m writing about, I can write with confidence. If someone thinks it’s unbelievable that a character can’t get cell reception to call for help in an Ohio state park, I know he’s mistaken because because I’ve been to Ohio state parks that don’t have reception.

Because the setting is so important to me, I try to set my stories only places I have been to. So I take advantage of my knowledge of rural places in Ohio and West Virginia. Wherever we vacation, I make it a practice to study the place, like the coast of North Carolina. If I want to do a story on the ocean, I would pick the part of the coast I know something about, rather than trying to research an area I might never be able to visit.

If you write science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction, try to find some equivalent in the current, real world. If your space opera occurs on a desert planet, arrange a visit to a desert. If your historical romance takes place in Victorian London, and you live nowhere close to Great Britain, find a city that still has Victorian architecture. Or a living museum where guides dress and act like people from the period. If the princess-in-disguise from your fantasy hides out in a stable, volunteer to work in one.

Have you used walking as writing inspiration? When have you been most inspired?

Favorite Books — Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

Since this month’s theme is focusing on setting, I checked out several books on the topic and found a wonderful resource in a new favorite book Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle.

In my prompt from last week, I related Mr. Rozelle’s advice about carrying a journal with you wherever you go so you can make notes on memorable people, places, and things and then draw on those notes when you need inspiration.

The book is chock full of great advice like that. It covers topics in chapters such as “Showing, Telling, and Combining the Two”, a skill difficult for me to acquire, “Sensory Description”, and “Description and Setting in Specialized Fiction”. Mr. Rozelle uses examples from fiction and nonfiction and from both literary and popular fiction.

All the chapters had useful advice and information, written in an engaging style, as if the author was sitting across from you at a coffee shop. Even more helpful were the three to four exercises at the end of each chapter so readers can practice what Mr. Rozelle preached.

With so much information to learn, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I summed it up for myself this way: the setting must do more than hold characters. It should do double, triple, or even quadruple duty.

Pulling double duty

For example, my WIP, A Shadow on the Snow, is a mystery novel with a nineteen-year-old girl named Rae as the protagonist. She is an amateur photographer. That interest influences how she sees her world. I write in first-person, so the entire novel unfolds through her eyes.

Let’s say Rae enters a house and describes it in unflattering terms. Then she meets the owner and doesn’t like him either. Through my description of the setting, I’ve told readers something about Rae, something about the house, and something about the owner of the house. If this dislike makes Rae act in a certain away, then my description has also influenced the plot. So the setting is working hard, not only being the background for the action but revealing characters and affecting the action.

It’s similar to laying clues in a mystery. Readers don’t know if a conversation is only imparting information or if it’s also providing a clue. Or it may be a red herring. But a conversation, action sequence, setting, or character should be more than what it initially appears to be.

This concept energizes and intimidates me. I love the challenge of making my settings work that hard but also wonder if I can meet the challenge. Some of Mr. Rozelle’s examples are so perfect that I feel I could never equal them.

How do you work your setting? Do you have a book you recommend?

Monday Sparks: Dive into this Setting

Last Friday, I had the chance to put into practice the writing lesson I mentioned in last week’s prompt and dive into the setting in which my family and I found ourselves in when we visited a local park for an owl hunt with a naturalist.

As we walked through the woods, and the naturalist called to the owls, I tried to immerse myself in the setting, using all of my senses. I couldn’t take notes at the time, but here are my impressions.

  • Stars glitter in the black sky
  • Almost full moon throws moon shadows
  • Boots squeak on the thin layer of snow.
  • No smells
  • Moon ignites ice-encased tree branches, making them sparkle
  • Trees not directly in moonlight twinkle, like stars caught here and there on their branches, or the branches sparsely decorated with Christmas lights.
  • Moonlight can look sinister, like a bad imitation of sunlight

Another sense to add to the customary five is the feeling a setting gives me. Walking through those glittering trees, I didn’t want to miss one beautiful aspect. I kept looking and looking. I was overcome with a sense of wonder, reveling in the beauty of God’s nature, in awe of how He didn’t have to make nature so breath-taking.

Because of the feelings this setting evoked, I will probably use it in a scene where my main character feels the same. I did have one observation that didn’t fit with my sense of awe, how the moonlight can look sinister. If I want to exploit that aspect of it for a different scene, I’ll need to either revisit the experience in my head or head out on another night hike. I like that latter idea better.

Have you hiked in snowy woods at night? How would you dive into this setting?

Valentine's Day: A Reality Check

I wrote Valentine’s Day: a Reality Check because I felt most of the things we’d swear we’d do to prove our love when we’re dating are pretty useless. Wonderfully romantic but useless. After fifteen years of marriage, I want promises that at least shake hands with reality.

Once upon a time you promised you’d …

Climb rugged mountains,

Cross the wildest seas,

Crawl through burning deserts

To prove your love to me.

That’s nice. But what I really need is someone who

Suffers my uncle who never stops talking from the second he walks in,

Endures my bachelor brother who knows the best way to parent,

Puts up with my grandmother who hasn’t said a kind word in years.

If you can do all that, then I won’t promise to

Brave a tornado,

Hack through the thickest jungle,

Battle a blizzard

To prove my love to you.

But I will swear to

Suffer your mother who thinks no one is good enough for you,

Endure your sister who is always trying to convert me to her latest cause,

Put up with your stepfather who sticks to his favorite subject: him.

… and we will live happily ever after.

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