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?

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?

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II

foodw-3040924_1280If your plot starts to bog down, examine your settings. Are you taking advantage of their full potential?

When I wrote my country noir short story, “Debt to Pay”, I knew I needed a remote location in Ohio. I chose Wayne National Forest. My husband and I went hiking in the Athen Unit on ATV trails. At the trailhead, a sign explained that if someone in your group is injured, you must figure out which helicopter clearing you are closest to. The dirt roads are so rutted that no ambulance can get back into the area. A medical helicopter is the only means of rescue. And all of that depends on whether your phone get reception, which isn’t certain in Wayne National Forest.

Now I had the ingredients for a story. Two friends are riding motorcycles. I’ll set the story in the late fall to cut down on the number of people using the trail. One friend wrecks. They can’t get phone reception. The uninjured friend thinks that if she can get to the top of the steep, wooded hills. she can call for help. Or maybe she should return to the parking lot and walk out to a road.

Darkness is closing in. If she climbs the hills, she’s not sure she can find her friend in the dark. Walking to the parking lot will take longer, but it will be easy to find her friend. The setting give me so many routes to develop a plot.

Questions to Ask about Settings

Work place: Where does your main character (MC) work? Alone or with people? If alone, would a stranger coming into the setting be upsetting? A welcome change? If with people, are they only fellow employees or also members of the public? I love using settings where the general public can be found because I can throw in almost any character I want.

MC’s home: Is it rural, suburban, urban? An apartment or condo? An apartment would allows me to introduce more characters, and therefore, more plots. In the complex where I had my first apartment, I thought my neighbor might be a vampire because I had not seen him during daylight hours.

Homes of family and friends: Same questions as above. How does MC feel about these houses? If MC is uncomfortable or uneasy, why? If he prefers it to his own home, why?

Locations of hobbies and volunteer work: MC hates her job but loves her volunteer work at a stable. Why? She loves horses. Why? Her grandparents had horses when she was growing up. So why doesn’t she give up the job she hates and work with horses for a living?

Vacations or business destinations: Are these places MC is excited to visit or is dreading? If it’s a vacation, why would MC dread it? Because he has to share a house on the beach with his in-laws. Why doesn’t he like his in-laws?

The more why questions I ask, the deeper I dig into plot.

What settings to you favor in your writing? How do settings thicken your plot?

 

Writing Tip — Maximize Your Setting

If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.

  • North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
  • Foreign CorrespondentThis movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
  • PyschoHitchcock used the Bates’s home (see photo) so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.

Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to  work a location to maximum effect. I recently saw the movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.

One of the reasons I love The Bourne Identity is that the director made such effective use of driving through Europe in winter. It was a setting I hadn’t seen before in movies, and he conveyed the desperate road trip so well that I want to drive across Europe to see the sights.

So wherever you choose to place your stories, be sure to research it well enough to maximize the setting. Some idosyncracy about a particular location can inspire a character, a plot point, or simply elevate your setting from good to great.

What’s a memorable setting from a movie? Or have you written about a unique setting?

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Valentine’s Day as Writing Inspiration

heartw-3089409_1280I don’t read romance. Can’t stand the genre. I’ve tried to read historical fiction with romance in it and romantic suspense, thinking the history or the mystery would compensate for the romance. It never works. The romance either bores me or seems so unrealistic that I can’t push through to the end.

So here are five non-traditional suggestions on how to use Valentine’s Day as writing inspiration.

Junior High Dance

In junior high, most boys are finally realizing that girls aren’t icky, but they aren’t sure what to do about this revelation. A dance on Valentine’s Day following several characters as they negotiate the unknown territory of romance presents many opportunities for both comedic and dramatic plots.

New Love/ Old Love

An elderly, married couple help an engaged or newlywed couple having troubles on Valentine’s Day. For the elderly couple to have more impact on the younger one, I think they shouldn’t be related to them. The couples can be neighbors. The two very different milestones in theses couples’ lives offer great contrast for storytelling.

Bittersweet Love

Write a story following a widower or widow experiencing his or her first Valentine’s Day since the death of the spouse.

Humorous Love

Write about a married couple trying to enjoy a romantic date night and being constantly frustrated with interruptions.

Bad Valentine’s Day

If you really want to stand Valentine’s Day on its head, have a couple break up on Valentine’s Day. That sounds so sad, I’m almost sorry I suggested it. But if the break up kicks off the story, then the uncouple have a chance to find new relationships or become reconciled.

Now it’s your turn. How would you put a new spin on Valentine’s Day as writing inspiration?

 

 

Writing Tip — Full Moon Night as Writing Inspiration

naturew-3194001_1280Some of my favorite experiences in nature occurred on clear nights with a full moon. If you haven’t been out on a night like that, with no artificial light nearby, I highly recommend finding an opportunity to do so. Artificial lights dampen or kill the wonder of a full moon night.

Since we live in the county, I’ve had chances to venture out in these nights bathed in moonlight. What catches my attention first are the shadows. The moonlight is so strong it casts shadows. The second thing I notice is how far I can see. On typical nights, the woods that line the edge of our property are just a wall of darkness. Under the full moon, I can pick out details. And then I become fascinated with the color. Silver is the best way to describe it. It illuminates but very differently from sunlight, so I can see but not quite.

“Not quite” sums up a full moon night. I can see better than a normal night, but not quite like in the daytime. My yard is recognizably familiar but not quite the same in the silver light.

I had the wonderful blessing to see the ocean under a full moon. As well as casting our shadows across the sand, the moonlight transformed the waves into rippling sheets of metal. They appeared solid as the hit the shore. That experience was so intense that God used it to lift me from a four-month depression.

So what stories are appropriate for this “not quite” setting? The strangeness of it should be a backdrop for a wonderfully positive scene or a horribly negative one. It can’t be the setting for run-of-the-mill action.

As much as I enjoy moonlight, I can see how it can be unsettling and even sinister to people because of it’s ability to be a weird imitation of day. One of my favorite picture books, The Magic Woodbegins with an illustration of a boy sitting under a full moon. He heads into the dark woods and mets a creature who at first is disturbing and then turns dreadful. For a positive approach, read Chapter 22 “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah” from Watership Down by Richard Adams.

How would you use a full moon night a story?

Writing Tip — Writing about Natural Light

naturew-3294681_1280One aspect of nature that’s always caught my attention are all the variations of natural light. How sunlight, and moonlight, illuminates the landscape often inspires settings for me. Writing about the natural light of a setting can add tension, foretell events, or soothe readers as they come to the end of your story. Below are some of the ways natural light inspires me.

Golden summer evening: Everyone has experienced how wonderfully relaxing a summer evening bathed in golden light is. It seems like the perfect setting for a low-key conclusion to a story, and that’s the setting for last chapter of my novel.

Bright sunrise: This kind of sunrise seems like a good setting for an upbeat ending to a story. It also makes a powerful contrast if most of you story has taken place at night, especially if the action has been harrowing for the characters.

Cloudy sunrise: If the day doesn’t start brightly, it seems to be a harbinger for a bad day. A cloudy sunrise could kick off a story, foretelling that things won’t go well for the main characters that day.

Bright, clear day: My mood almost always lifts when the humidity is so low that sky is clear of clouds and at its most brilliant blue. It seems like a day overflowing with possibilities. A great way to start an adventure. Or I can use the day was a counterpoint. My main character wants to get out into the gorgeous day and is trapped inside. Nature itself seems to be against her, like the other reasons which are forcing her to stay inside.

Weird light: Unusual weather circumstances can affect the light strangely. One spring morning when my kids were small, I woke up after my husband had already gone to work. The blinds were drawn in my bedroom, so my first view of the day was when I stepped out of my bedroom. Through the windows in my living room, I saw the morning sky was yellow. My first thought: TORNDADO! Immediately, I turned on the TV and found out that severe weather was passing. I can’t remember if the storms produced tornadoes but we didn’t experience anything more than normal thunderstorms.

Unusual weather like the yellow sky calls for dramatic action. My main character could be struggling toward a goal and a storm can be an obstacle or the symbol of obstacles he must over come. Or it could be the backdrop for the ultimate clash between to strong-willed characters.

How does natural lighting affect you? Do you see it as another element in your settings?

 

 

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