We’re continuing a series on “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days” with Susan Meissner, who has generously given us a LOT of insight into the process. Susan has written a new installment today on setting:
Okay, so you’ve got this great family of characters swimming laps in your head. You know their greatest hopes and dreams, you know what inspires them, infuriates them, energizes them, and immobilizes them. You know whether they like jazz or country western, coffee or tea, paper or plastic. Now you’re ready to create for them a setting that will capitalize on their strengths and weaknesses.
Before I write a word, I envision the world my characters live in. I want to know the environment that will be the backdrop for everything that happens to my fictional people. I like to make my setting a character, to endow it with character-like qualities that give my tale dimension. The setting you choose for your story should matter. It should make a difference. It should communicate something.
There are two good reasons why nearly all my novels take place in either San Diego or the Twin Cities. I know these cities. I know the weather, the lingo, the hot spots, the scary streets, how the sky looks at sunset and how far you can see on a clear day. Knowing my setting ahead of time frees me to concentrate on plucking out of it plot-driving details. If I don’t already know the setting I’ve chosen, I spend pre-writing time Googling the heck out of it. I read that city’s newspaper online, I check out the real estate ads, the society pages, the obituaries, the restaurant guide. I look at satellite photos on Google Earth, noting its streets, its topography, its airport and shopping malls. This kind of research doesn’t take as long as you might think. Once you know the anatomy of a city, and the time in which you place your characters in it, well then you can put that knowledge to work for you in adding depth to your prose without spending week after week after week at it.
For my Rachael Flynn mystery series, I placed my lawyer-nursing mother in the Twin Cities. One, because I know the Twin Cities and two, because Rachael lives two lives. She is a dedicated prosecuting attorney working on child protection cases but she is also a wife and mother. I placed her at the Ramsey County Attorney’s office in St. Paul for her job, but she lives her wife-and-mother home life across the river in the reinvented warehouse district of Minneapolis. In A Seahorse in the Thames, which I set in San Diego, I used the ocean as a metaphor for God being both vast and unknowable as well as unchanging and reliable. When you know your setting, you can use it; you can shop from it like it’s a grocery store. And please remind yourself that there is much more to the physical setting than the weather. We love to use the weather (it was a dark and stormy night) to set our stages but there are so many other very vivid scene setters at your disposal. Make use of all your senses. Every scene should include a setting that is dimensional and purposeful. And it’s not hard to do when you know your settings upfront.
I make lots of note cards about setting when I’m in pre-write mode so that when I began to actually write and the creative engine is cruising along, I don’t have to stop (which always yanks me out of character) to study the place where my characters find themselves in. Sure, there will be times you can’t always foresee where the story will go. But it’s been my experience that you know more than you think you do.
I have read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible three times, simply because the prose is breathtaking and the setting, haunting. It’s a tough read. But I admire how Kingsolver makes the Congo seem like a living breathing thing; sometimes a friend, and sometimes an enemy. It’s very powerful. I imagine she knew quite a bit about the Congo before she wrote a word. And I think her prose shows it.
Getting a firm handle on your setting will help you craft a masterful novel. And it also just happens to help you do it in less time than if you just learn as you go. When you don’t have to stop to ask for directions, it really is a nicer ride and by golly, you get to where you’re going a heck of a lot faster.
Randy sez: Great stuff, Susan! I also set one of my novels (DOUBLE VISION) in San Diego, because I lived there for 18 years and knew the geography. I had a small high-tech company in the building right next door to the office I worked in for three years. It just saved research time to write a book in a place I knew well.
Now, I’ve got a question for Susan: Can you elaborate on this thing about making your setting a character? I’ve been thinking about doing that for my next novel, and even went so far as to write an entry from the personal journal of the city where my story will be set. What do you do exactly, Susan, to make your setting live as a character in your own mind?
I’m also curious about the setting as character bit. Ever since you mentioned something about that in your zine, Randy, I’ve been aware of it in my writing and have started playing it to effect.
Does setting as character mean they are inseparable from eachother? Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t seem to separate mine.
I look at the Lord of the Rings movies and I see this principle there visually; the way the elves are in autumn/Arwyn’s warning that she’ll have a long winter if she stays; the darkness over Mordor/Frodo’s inner torment; the circular simplicity of the Shire that casts irony on the darkness to come; the barbaric grace of Rohan and the same in Eowyn. It all works with the characters and vice versa.
Is that setting as character, or character as setting, or both? (Or none of the above?) Whatever it is, I love the effects of it and the ability to so subtly shade the effect of the story on the reader.
Pam Halter says
I’m with Cate. I’m writing fantasy, and while it’s an earth-based world, I still want enough differences to make it, well, different. How far can we go without being schmultzy?
This fascinates me!! I love to see metaphor and symbols as Susan mentions about the ocean. I find myself experimenting with it, but since I’m so new at this, I’m probably loading the story with more symbols and themes than one novel needs.
When my MC’s are visiting the ocean, they both experience a “storm” of emotions, and one is actually watching the sea as he struggles with the intensity of his feelings, contemplating the depth and power of the sea, and is reminded of how God can calm a raging storm. (overdone?)
One thing that keeps popping up is how setting affects the characters mood, or how his mood affects what he senses. The same character in the same setting at two different times comes up with a different impression of his surroundings each time.
Set in the central Oregon high desert: When the hero first meets the lovely, innocent heroine, he senses the pure stillness in the night, the hush of some well-kept secret, the fact that the night sky in this vast place is untouched by the lights and sounds of the city (man). And the same character in the same desert place in another scene, when frustrated by a not finding someone he’s looking for, notes the dryness in the air, the sweat beading on his forehead, the gnats hovering around in a buzzing, teeming cloud and the gritty dust particles sticking to his perspiring brow.
There is another symbol, or metaphor—I’m not sure which: the hero discovers a quiet, beautiful, hidden grove very near his regular walking path, realizes it takes being at the right place at the right time to discover and appreciate it. It’s a symbol of how he discovers there are people of great value to him ‘right under his nose’.
As you can see, I’m new and still learning, so this stuff is fascinating and I’m probably way overboard, but I’m having fun learning. This is good, I want more!!
In one of my novels I created a town and actually drew a map of it, but it was based on a town I knew. I have always remembered the story of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES where the books she wrote were about what she really KNEW. Also, in LITTLE WOMEN where Jo finally sold a book because she wrote what she knew. That has stuck with me since I began writing as a kid.
I love Kingsolver. I don’t necessarily agree with all her politics, but I am proud to say I was a Kingsolver fan before Kingsolver was cool. 😉
I’m interested in learning about setting as a character, too. However, I have a few more general questions about setting that are keeping me from pursuing several of my story ideas.
I generally write in a historical timeframe with a setting in the American West. Can my places have fictional names? Can I make up a small town set in a specific part of a state? Does the terrain have to be real, or can I make it up as long as it doesn’t contradict with the type of terrain found in that particular location? I would love to use the where I live, but some of my story lines won’t work here. Prior to the mid 1900’s, most ranchers of this area ran sheep rather than cattle.
ML Eqatin says
I don’t think of my settings as characters, I think of them as plots. Maybe it’s because I have worked with, and studied, people and animals in their environments while helping shape them in a specific direction.
God does that. He created all time and space as a training ground for us. Creation is not a character, it is a plot. It does not think, but whatever bit of it is around exerts force on everything that is near it. In creation, we can see the work of the divine, as well as the great battle of good against evil.
Because I write in pre-industrialized, and therefore usually rural times and places, the whole pattern of season and agriculture is a major part of every character’s life. It is in modern outdoors-themed stories as well. You can’t have guys go on a hunting trip if it’s two weeks after Easter.
If the setting has animals, (nearly all settings do) they can be characters. They have independent minds and wills, and whatever brain they have is always working out how to deal with their world. But the geography isn’t a character, nor is the weather or the rotation of crops. Those are plots.
I suppose a people-group (a tribe, or even a city) could have character-like attributes.
bonne friesen says
I love the story world as a character idea too, especially because I tend to fall in love with my fantasy story worlds. With a love of the place, the prose seems to come out beautifully, with less effort to make it so.
Looking forward to more tips from the pro! Many thanks for your generous teaching.
I’m interested in hearing about this too. I’ve thought a lot about the story world but never would have thought to consider it as a character and have a hard time imagining doing it this way. I’m interested to see how it works.