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?