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?

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?

Monday Sparks — What’s the Setting?

For February, the theme is setting. I am in the middle of reading an extremely helpful book on the subject, Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle. One piece of advice found in the book is to always carry a journal with you so that if you find an interesting setting or person, you can jot down all your impressions, then refer back to these impressions if you want to use that setting or person in a story.

For today’s prompt, I’m going to imagine that I’m sitting in this crowded room. What impression does it make on me? Here are my notes.

  • Crowded, knees cramped under table
  • Smell a very strong perfume, choking me
  • Lots of rustling papers, creaking seats
  • Smell something spicy. Lunch? Cologne?
  • Speaker’s voice — very flat, uninteresting
  • Heat from so many crammed in one room
  • Take off jacket
  • Warmth makes me want to find freedom
  • Doodling. Several other people are too.

If I need a scene with a crowded meeting or classroom, and my main character is bored, I can draw on my notes from this setting. Here’s a possibility.

If the exalted bosses of CJ&M actually want us to get something out of this meeting, couldn’t they find a presenter who speaks in more than one tone?

Scooting back my seat to stretch my cramped legs, I bumped the table behind me. Murmuring an apology over my shoulder, I caught again the choking odor of lilacs. Who had decided that twenty dabs of perfume wasn’t enough? I coughed and peeled off my jacket, the back of my shirt damp.

What notes would you make about the setting?

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