Friday, July 17, 2009

Setting - The Backbone of Your Story

Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize winning author, said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else..." Think of Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s only novel set on the windswept moors of England. The tragic tale of Catherine and Heathcliff would not be the gothic masterpiece it is if it took place in the Caribbean or America’s Wild West. Bronte’s choice of time and location, her setting, helps establish the atmosphere and mood of the story.

So, how do you make your masterpiece moody and atmospheric? Whether you write medieval, regency, paranormal or contemporary, your job as an author is to convey your setting to the reader in a way that is believable, that will give your story credibility. To do that you will need to build the world in which your characters live. The 5 basic elements of setting, besides time period, are physical locale, customs and manners, lifestyles, and historical events.

The physical locale sets the stage. What does your world look like? Open a word document or get out that notebook and start creating. Begin with the big picture, the geography and landscape of your special world. If your story takes place in a city, determine which city. Leigh Michaels in On Writing Romance suggests that any city under 100,000 people be fictionalized. You can still draw on the experiences of small town living, and no one will question the actual name of the street where your heroine’s bakery is located. But what about your millionaire tycoon who has to run his empire from New York? Then you might want to fictionalize the office tower he calls home. That way you can arrange the building to your story’s need.

You’re not finished yet. Now, get more specific. What is the weather like? Setting, according to Kim Kay in her article It’s Your World: Setting Your Novel, should be used not just as a backdrop to your story, but to enhance it. Your millionaire tycoon, in his Frump Tower, may just get caught there during a wicked snowstorm blowing in off the Atlantic. His mild mannered secretary, who is working late because she has no idea when not to volunteer for extra duty, could also find herself stuck at the office until the roads clear. Suddenly, your story takes a twist. The major plot of getting those two unlikely candidates together is advanced with one night of solitude, one night of vulnerability. The lovely secretary no longer sees her boss as the cold workaholic and the tycoon learns of a woman with a secret ambition.

Keep going, what about other aspects of your world? Knowing the plants and animals that inhabit your world and the industries and resources that fuel the economy all lead to creating a world that is believable. And your reader needs to believe in your world or they won’t believe in your characters.

The next element is to determine the customs and manners of the time and place you’ve chosen. Historical writing is rooted in research. A regency author must know the world of aristocracy: her dukes and barons and the difference between Lord Frump and Lord Richard Mallory, Earl of Frump. She will also be knowledgeable so that if her heroine’s mother is dragging her daughter around on "marriage calls" she will keep them there no longer than 20 minutes.

But those that write paranormal must also explore the customs and manners of their setting. Perhaps werewolves and vampires populate that world with the vampires considered an inferior race. Each race will have their own customs and the interaction between them will be wrought with rules and regulations. You, the author, must know just as much as the regency author in order for your readers to feel the authenticity of your words.

Kim Kay also speaks about using your setting to illustrate character. Imagine the werewolf hero, taught to hate the vampires, finding himself behind enemy lines. Those very customs and manners you have created will determine how he interacts. The expectations and stereotypes he takes with him will play out in his actions, his reactions, and even his dialogue. Now, your well-planned imaginative setting can play a vital role in the hero’s character arc.

Your notebook should be getting full by this point. The fourth element is lifestyles. The houses your characters inhabit and how they move from place to place. The food they eat, their clothes, and their education also fall under this category. Your readers can only see, hear and smell the things you put in front of them, so evoke their senses. Annabelle, the heroine in your Wild West romance, wrinkles her nose at the smell of wet wool mittens mingled with chalk dust. A fingernail dragged slowly over one of the children’s slates, sends chills shivering over her skin. One of the older boys, picking his teeth with a short blade, sneers at her from his undersized desk. Perhaps, she thinks, volunteering to teach while the school marm recovers is not the best way to impress the handsome rancher.

The last element is historical events. Here you need to determine what’s happening (or has happened) in the world at large. Again, it doesn’t matter what subgenera of romance you’re writing. For you to accurately portray your story to your audience, you need to know your world. Your characters are real people embedded in your real story. The millionaire tycoon will know all about the stock market crashes of 1929, 1987, and 2000. Lord Frump, our regency hero, will know of Napoleon and his battle at Waterloo. The werewolf will know the reason why his race is superior, even though, hopefully, by the end of the book he will understand equality and compassion. And Annabelle will know of the railroad buying out the smaller ranchers in order to bring modern transportation to the west.

It’s a lot of work and research, but it will ground your story, make your characters believable, and enhance your plot. You may never use all the details in the notebook that describes your world, but they will be there just in case. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The world only exists in your eyes – you can make it as big or as small as you want to." And remember to make it credible.

So, People of Blogland, what settings have you used in a novel? Have you considered all 5 elements I've listed here? Are there other elements that I've missed? Does setting really do anything for you as a reader?



Rie said...

Wow, great post! When I was working on my first WIP I set my story in a place I have never been and probably will never go. England, Regency Era. Seemed like a good idea until I got my first critiques back.

Now it's set in Kansas during the late 1800's. It's amazing how a setting change can improve your novel dramatically.

Captain Hook said...

See? This is why my WIPs are in real towns, in modern times, with ordinary people who don't need to know any of that junk!!

I am awful at all that stuff. Just awful.

P.S. - But I will bookmark this post for if I ever decide to expand my horizons.

Janet said...

Hey Rie! Great example of how setting is so important to a story :) I, too, set my novel (medieval) in England. I spent a lot of time searching old map online and finding the perfect place to 'create' my fiefdom! One day I hope to get to that part of the world.

Good luck with your WIP :)

Janet said...

But you still set the novel someplace, right? And even though you didn't spend tons of time researching, you brought in the customs and manners of the present day to make your novel authentic.

Are your novels set in towns you've live in, Captain? Do you utilize google maps for street names, buildings, etc? Always love hearing how others come at a novel - if you'd like to share ;)

Ban said...

Ahhh, the freedom of world-building in the fantasy genre !!! I can create the towns, the history, the cultures, the terrain etc. This way I KNOW everything works in favor of my characters and the plot ;) Doesn't mean it's not work ... still gotta make everything believable but I don't have to worry about my story conflicting with anything 'real life' like world history - though a knowledge of past events etc. does help one make a credible 'fantastical' past...

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I will definitely have to come back to this, Janet, as I have some world-building to polish once the first draft is done. A lot of it comes out organically, but that's mostly in relation to the central setting. I still want to figure out things like trade routes and such for later, but I can do without them for the moment.

As Ban said, fantasy world-building allows for a little more freedom in developing setting, but it still all needs to hold together. And we end up having to research all sorts of eras and regions, rather than just fun. Gotta say I love world-building though, especially customs and culture. It always grates me if I watch a movie (such as 300 last night) and characters in the wrong setting start spouting phrases like "baptized in the fires of combat" without wondering why they're using the phrase. The good thing about it though, is whenever I hear inappropriate phrases, it prompts me to go figure out my own customs to fill the need instead.

Janet said...

Good point, ban - also about making it 'real' even though it's fantasy. I know you've spent a great deal of time creating the cultures of your world - and the magic/creatures/customs that inhabit said world. That's a setting that will come off as authentic and your readers will be grateful for your thorough imagination.

Janet said...

So true, Hayley - not only in fantasy, but in anything historical. It would jar the reader out of the story if Lady Bells turned to Hugh and said "Whatever!" (with her hand up in his face and everything :)

And I love how you create your story and then go back to layer in those details that will enrich your world and, therefore, your characters. I've often thought of writing fantasy, but my imagination doesn't work that way. Now give me a good mystery and my mind is twisting/plotting all day and all night.

connie said...

Good post You are making work for me! Now I have something else to think about.
Notice how Mary Balogh always works in the weather...sunny for June, warm for Sept..after constant rain.
I like that

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Janet. I'll definitely be coming back to this one.

I was actually visiting the setting of my Prairie Junction series today on my trip down to North Dakota. Yup, the canola was just a bloomin' all over the field. :)

Janet said...

Hey, Connie! Yeah, there's always one more thing to think about when it comes to writing a novel! I love reading books by Mary Balogh - her settings really come to life and, in turn, create a backdrop for larger than life characters.

Hey, Anita! Sorry I didn't get back to you last night - electrical storm went through and we shut down the computer. I say your Facebook tag that your were down scouting - a beautiful time of the year to do that. The canola is just starting to bloom here (late due to the cold spring) and I'm hoping to find my favorite prairie scene before I leave - a field of canola right next to a field of flax, both in full bloom. The blue and yellow together are amazing!

I love how you take time to visit your 'imagined' setting so that you get the details right and bring authenticity to your work. Looking forward to some pictures on your blog (maybe?).

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks Janet, but I actually went down to pick up my mail. I won a Sony eReader to test drive until Sept 30th a couple weeks ago at and saved 2 weeks of viewing time by having it sent to my US post office address instead of here at home.

But yes, while I was down there, I did stop and take pics of the Prairie Junction site in full canola bloom as well as other pics. Just couldn't help it. :)