As I looked under the pier in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, toward the sea, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was staring into a magic portal. If I could make it past the clashing waves to the end, I would be transported to … where? Where does it lead? To the past? To the future? To a planet on the edge of the galaxy? Or to a world of our innermost fears?
Although the internet provides myriad opportunities to virtually visit sites around the world, I still find nothing helps me understand a setting better than walking through it. Whenever you can walk your settings.
In June, my husband, kids, and I explored the coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, the third oldest community in the state. We’d been to the town many times before, but we’d never stopped in its cemetery. It’s so old that instead of being called a cemetery, it’s the Old Burying Ground. With the sky turning black as a storm approached, we ventured into the dim graveyard, the thick tangle of live oak branches pressing in around us, adding a ton of atmosphere.
No pictures or virtual tour could replicate what we experienced that day.
Five Benefits of Walking Your Setting
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 notice 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. The photos above a can’t convey the hush of the cemetery, which contrasted with the strengthening winds, or the crackle of dead leaves underfoot, or the smooth surface of the marble headstones.
Walking allows me to absorb the atmosphere. That probably sounds artsy, but I think creative people know what I mean. Most locations give you a certain feeling. A doctor’s office might give me an uneasy feeling, and I can’t figure out why until I realize it has some similarity to an office where I had an unpleasant experience. It helps my writing if I give my setting a mood as well as a physical description. Experiencing the atmosphere of places in reality enormously aids my ability to create moods for my settings.
Walking gives me confidence when writing. Because I’ve actually visited the places 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.
Walking is cheap. If it’s difficult for you to travel for research, walking settings where you live or ones you visit regularly saves you both time and money. When I had to find a town outside of Ohio in which my main character Rae finished high school, I picked the coast of North Carolina because we have vacationed there.
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.
The August heat is making itself real in my neck of the woods, so today’s picture prompt is about using August heat as a setting. As soon as I saw this picture, the words below leaped into my mind.
The sun rose over the still-quiet city, a haze already gathering above the maples and oaks in Nelson Park. I crunched along the crushed gravel path. A few birds tossed out some notes, either early risers warming up their vocal chords or night ones wrapping up their nocturnal activities. Turning right, I followed the path that led to the building with the mayor’s office. A jogger trotted past. I smiled, but of course, he didn’t smile back. You don’t in this city.
I wiped at the sweat on my lip and pulled my damp shirt from my back. The humidity climbed with the sun. It sidled up to you and sank in, just like Mayor Nelson’s words when he wanted to win you over to do something for him.
He thought he finally had me, had finally hooked me and could play me however he wanted. But he didn’t have me. He couldn’t get me.
Picking up my pace, I grinned at the next grim-faced jogger.
I was stumped. While writing A Shadow on the Snow, my YA mystery, I knew I had to describe the weather. The mystery is set in mythical, rural Marlin County, Ohio, during the winter. The weather had to be mentioned. But except for a few key scenes, when the weather added to the plot, my descriptions seemed lifeless and pointless. After wrestling with the problem, I came up with a solution on how to take advantage of the weather in a setting.
More Than Just Scenery
I wrote in my previous writing tip, “Maximize a Setting”, how an ice-and-snowstorm plays a critical role in a chase scene in my novel. But what about the weather in a scene where it doesn’t directly affect the plot. Unlike in a movie, which automatically captures whatever background is behind the actors, I had to deliberately add descriptions so readers could imagine where the characters were interacting. But descriptions as mere descriptions seemed worthless. Could I have the weather assume another role?
Setting the Mood
I decided to use the weather to set the mood for the novel. In the opening chapter, when my main character Rae is feeling good about life, the day is cold but dazzling with sunshine. As she investigates who is stalking her, the weather grows more dismal and oppressive. A breakthrough comes after the snowstorm. The weather is sunny again. Then it grows bleaker as the story proceeds to the climax, which takes place on a foggy evening.
Once I’d given the weather definite purpose, I found it much easier to write.
It can remind characters of a previous event, and I can work in some backstory.
It can reflect the mood of the main character. A main character bent on revenge can travel through scenes in which the weather becomes increasingly violent.
It can reflect the relationship between characters. The course of a marriage could be charted by the weather. If a couple gets married on a stormy day, that can foreshadow trouble to come. Or if the weather was perfect on their wedding day, the couple holds on to that memory when they run into trouble.
What books have you read that to took advantage of the weather in a setting?
I avoid hospitals whenever I can. Not that I’ve had a bad experience during any of the few times I was admitted to one. I think my dislike developed when my brother-in-law had to endure two liver transplants in six months. The coldness and sterility of the quiet corridors that went on forever didn’t induce me to linger or relax.
I’m not a city person. I do enjoy visiting interesting sites in a city, but the traffic alone prevents me from enjoying a long stay. After while, the crush of humanity makes me glad to escape to the open spaces of the country.
Both of those settings would work well if I wanted to make a main character uncomfortable since I have a genuine dislike of them. Writers are always seeking to add tension to our writing. Putting a main character in an uncomfortable setting is a great way to achieve this.
Writers, what settings have you used to make characters uncomfortable? Readers, what settings have you read that did a good job of making character uncomfortable?