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

If 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?

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