Monday, August 22, 2011

Setting the Setting

by Jemi Fraser

Creating a realistic setting is important to your story. Settings ground the reader and help the story make sense. If you don't have enough information, it can frustrate the reader. Inconsistencies in the setting can throw a reader right out of the story. We don't want that!

In some cases, the setting can almost become a character—especially if you're writing fantasy or anything under the speculative fiction umbrella. It influences characters' actions and decisions.

As writers, we must create worlds that are vivid and real in our readers' minds. This doesn't only apply to fantasy. No matter the time frame or the geographical place, we need our readers to feel as if they could step right into the world and interact with the characters.

I'm sure I've mentioned before I'm not a big fan of reading or writing extended descriptive passages. I tend to skim them when I'm reading, skip too many of them when I'm writing. I invariably have to go back into my drafts and add sensory information.

I'm still learning how to do this well with settings, but here's what I've learned so far.

The first time a character sees an important place (whether it's a planet, a city or a house), it's okay to let the reader see it as well, but don't drag it out. Hit the highlights—what makes it special, or horrible, or ordinary. Focus only on what is relevant to your story and to your character. If it's not new to the character, he/she probably won't really notice it, and certainly won't focus on it. So keep it realistic—only see what the character would see and notice.

Instead of always describing the new place, objects in that place can give great clues and hints to setting without making me feel as if I've got to write another description. A lamp sporting a chipped hula dancer base and pom pom fringed shade will tell you what the rest of the hotel room looks like without having to get into too much detail. I've been doing this more with my Steampunk where I can focus on the tinkerings and things that make the setting Steampunk rather than merry old England. Hopefully it gives the reader a visual.

I'm also finding it fun to use the other senses to describe the setting, and not relying completely on what the characters see. That hotel room from the previous paragraph certainly has its own odor—look for a unique way to describe it too. Musty works, but it's an ordinary description—stretch for something better.

In a nighttime forest, it might be scarier to describe the sounds the character hears—or doesn't—than to describe visuals. I'm not great with using taste yet, food hasn't been that important in my stories so far. Texture is a lot of fun to work with though—especially when my characters are hiding in those alleys in Steampunk London or in the horse barn in my romantic suspense.

If you've set your story in a real place, you need to be careful. For me, I don't think I could set a story in a city I didn't know well. The internet is a wonderful invention, but I don't find it enough. I want to know the feel of a place, the rhythm, the pace. I want to know the people. Is this a city where you make eye contact with strangers, where people throw trash in the gutters, or where people don't use blinkers because everyone knows where they're going?

I'm impressed with people who pull this off without knowing the city. I've set one of my contemporary romantic suspense stories in an unnamed US city. I don't name it because I don't know any US cities well enough to set it there, yet it's important to the story that it be in the States. I'm hoping I'm able to pull it off without people saying, "Where in the heck are we???"

In a middle grade idea I've been toying with, the setting is a newly discovered planet. If I go ahead with it, the setting will be vital to the story—and I'm going to have to weave in a lot of details without bogging down the narrative. Should be fun!

So, those are some of the tips I've learned to make the setting real for your readers. What else can you suggest?

26 comments:

Talli Roland said...

Great tips, Jemi! One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard was not to overload description. Pick a few key objects and go with that -- and don't forget to use other senses, besides sight.

Jemi Fraser said...

Talli - thank you! It's a good tip - I hate slowing down my reading to read through acres of description!

Theresa Milstein said...

Jemi, I enjoyed this post. I'm reading The Near Witch, which is all about setting. The moor is like its own character. And the wind is a big part of the book too. At night, the MC utilizes her other senses so that's an excellent tip here.

I liked Stephen King's advice to give description through action.

Jemi Fraser said...

Theresa - thank you! Sounds like the author does setting really well in The Near Witch - I'll have to check it out!

King really does have the best advice!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great tips, Jemi! :D Just finished FOREVER (Maggie S.) and love how she handles this.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Great tips here, Jemi! I try to focus on what each of my POV characters focus on, that way readers will get not only description, but see it through the character's eyes (and nose, ears and fingers).

Jemi Fraser said...

Lisa - thank you! I've only read Shiver and part of Linger, but I agree. She handles incorporating the setting very well!

Jemi Fraser said...

Thanks Elspeth! That's what I'm trying to do too. See what my characters notice, touch... It's a bit of a challenge at times, but I'm getting there!

Matt Sinclair said...

I find that it's best to keep it simple and digestible. A person will only notice certain things when arriving somewhere new: a dark bar with a handful of customers, a crowded airport in a new city, the streets of New York for a person from Omaha. There's only so much a person can take in, so just as the character will try to manage the sensory input, the same is true for the reader.

Jemi Fraser said...

Matt - good point! We've all been in sensory overload and it's no fun at all. Definitely don't want to do that to our readers!

Sophie Perinot said...

“For me, I don't think I could set a story in a city I didn't know well. The internet is a wonderful invention, but I don't find it enough. I want to know the feel of a place, the rhythm, the pace. I want to know the people.”

Good thing you don’t write historical fiction, lol. As historical novelists, even if we visit the locations in our stories (and hopping the puddle to Europe where a majority of historical novels are set gets expensive) we haven’t REALLY visited them because we can only really see and feel those locations as they are today.

Using imagination with respect to location is, in my opinion, entirely valid and useful. No two people see or feel a city the same way, whether that city is past or present. So a writer’s imagined rendering of it is just fine by me as long as he/she doesn’t get major points wrong (like including a building that wasn’t built yet). I actually blogged about setting in the historical context here http://www.sophieperinot.com/blog/2011/08/01/location-location-location-thoughts-on-the-use-of-genuine-locations-in-historical-fiction/

GigglesandGuns said...

Great tips. I'm taking notes.

M Beth Vaughn

Jemi Fraser said...

Sophie - lol - so true! I prefer to set my stories where I'm more comfortable - although some of my comfort level comes through a lot of reading & researching! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Mary - thanks! Glad I was able to help out a little bit. :)

laughingwolf said...

good points, jemi...

talk about info dumps: i did a review of a supposedly nyt bestseller's book... the story did not begin til chapter 40... rest was info, and not all relevant to the tale!

Jemi Fraser said...

Laughing Wolf - Yikes! that kind of thing drives me nuts. I am not a fan of description at all. I've not gone back to some authors because of it! :)

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Hi Jemi,

This is a great post. Although I love to write description, reading long passages of it does tend to make me skim. As you said, choosing the right details, the best details, is a great approach. And treating setting a character can really help you focus on characterizing the other players in the room. I especially like your point about what a specific character sees. The choice of what he/she notices tells us a lot about that character. Thanks for sharing your tips,

Martina

LD Masterson said...

Jemi, we really were in the same place today. Nice post. Lots of good points.

carol brill said...

done well, seeing setting through the character's pov, is a two-way mirror. More than what the character sees, we see what the character NOTICES...and that can provide great character insight.

Jemi Fraser said...

Martina - Thank you & you're very welcome! I'm still working at incorporating all those details into my ms, but I'm getting better at it! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Linda - I know! I laughed when I read your post - very similar approahces to settings! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Carol - that's a great point! Especially in a mystery type story, it can give us both clues and insights. Awesome :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Great tips!

Whenever I set a story in a place that actually exists, I always start worrying about info-dumping or giving the reader the impression it's in a place entirely different from the one I intended; the Internet is handy, but it doesn't really give you details about the environment there.

Jemi Fraser said...

Golden Eagle - thank you! :)

I agree - it's tough. Doable, but tough. It requires a lot of research and not just looking at the physical spaces. It's also about the people and the feel of a place.

petemorin said...

Google Maps is an incredibly valuable tool for place descriptions - especially in cities, where the street view tool is in play. But yeah, it's hard to fake it with a place you've never been.

I just did an "action scene" involving a bunch of boats - and not having much knowledge of boats, found myself looking at detailed specs of SeaRays and Formulas to make sure I got the details right. Saved myself a trip to the boatyard.

Jemi Fraser said...

Pete - that's an excellent suggestion! I haven't really played much with Google maps - the swivelling around makes me kinda seasick. :)

I did the same thing with small planes as you did with the boats! Very helpful!