What Are Your Comfort Settings?

And I don’t mean the climate control in your car or home. Everyone, even characters, need a comfortable setting to retreat to or recover in. So what are your comfortable settings? If you’re a writer, what settings do your prefer to create to give your characters comfort? Readers, what are the comfortable settings that stick in your memory.

I think part of the appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories is his apartment on Baker Street. No matter how harrowing the mystery, Holmes and Watson can return to Baker Street with its inviting hearth, cozy chairs, and eccentric decorations, like the Persian slipper that holds Holmes’s tobacco. Although all the tobacco smoke would force me to leave the apartment if I wasn’t stopping by for a literary visit.

For my YA mystery, I needed a comfortable setting for main character, Rae. She’s just discovered her father and his family, so I made the farmhouse where her dad lives with her three half-brothers and her grandmother Rae’s comfort place. I modeled sections of the house on my maternal grandparents’ home, which was my comfort setting in reality.

Your turn. What are your comfort settings?

The Urban Setting Thesaurus

Nothing beats visiting a setting in person. But if that’s not possible, grab a copy of The Urban Setting Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to City Spaces by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

This reference book lists over 100 different settings found in an urban environment. For each setting, the authors list ways to evoke all five senses, possible sources of conflict, usual inhabitants, other related settings, notes and tips, and an example of how to work the setting into a story.

I wished I could have consulted this book last winter when I realized I had to write a brief scene in a pawn shop. The only time I’d visited one was in middle school. I don’t remember why, but my dad and I entered that pawn shop in Wheeling, West Virginia. My only memories are pretty vague, except for the piece of scrimshaw I found. I needed The Urban Setting Thesaurus to get the details right, even for a short scene.

The first thirty pages consist of articles offering advice on how to get maximum effect from your settings, such as “The Setting as a Vehicle for Delivering Backstory” and “Common Setting Snags”. One article I found very informative was “Urban World Building: The Pros and Cons of Choosing a Real-Life Location.”

Even better are the appendices in the back, which include the emotional value tool and setting checklist. If you have a scene that isn’t working or won’t behave, analyze it through this checklist. The authors have provided a pdf for the setting checklist here.

What if you’re writing a story with a rural setting? Never fear. Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Puglisi have thoughtfully published The Rural Setting Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places.

For my review of another writing book on settings, click here. I’ve also reviewed another book by Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus.

What book you’ve read has an amazing urban setting?

Prompts for Short Stories

This month’s theme is short stories. I loved reading them and writing them! My prompts for short stories provide inspiration by asking who, what, when, where, how, and why questions.

Today’s prompt is a setting. Answering the questions below gives me the beginning of a story.

What?–A well-kept room in an old family mansion

Where?–A small midwestern town.

When?–A dusty, hot August afternoon.

Who?— An elderly woman, who lives alone in the house, and a young woman, who cleans her house.

Why?–The young woman knows a mystery surrounds the elderly woman’s family and has found something in the attic that might be connected to it.

How?–The young woman shows the elderly woman the object and tells her what she thinks it has to do with the mystery.

For another setting prompt, click here. How does the photo inspire you to answer the questions?

Prompts for NaNoWriMo

We’re over half way through November. How is your NaNoWriMo going? Having any trouble with settings? As I write my YA mystery, I seem to have a lot of scenes of people discussing the case while eating. I need to change some of those scenes to give my writing more variety.

If you notice that you are using the same kind of setting over and over, see if these photos can act as prompts for your NaNoWriMo challenge.

I know I said my characters are eating too much, but in case your characters aren’t eating enough, here’s a kitchen to inspire you and allow your characters to get some nourishment.

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?

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