Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Settings Make a Difference

Where you set your story is a major factor when writing.  Sometimes your characters or the story itself will automatically tell you where your story is set.

Is your story set in a city or a small town?  Is it rural?  Is it set in the present, past, or future?

After choosing where to set your story, the first thing you need to do is to familiarize yourself with it.  

This morning I saw a book on Amazon that I thought might be a good one to buy and read.  I have a habit of checking reviews.  I don't usually read all of them, but I do read some from each rating.  4 and 5 star ratings tell me what other readers liked about the book.  3, 2, and 1 star ratings tell me what readers didn't like.  This time I was looking for something specific.  The story was set near a town I've visited.  The author's bio said she's lived all over the world.  Wonderful!  But did she 'know' about the area where she'd set the book?  The answer, thanks to a thoughtful and honest but fair review, came from someone who knows the location.  The author's setting was wrong in many ways.  My curiosity satisfied, I didn't purchase the book.  Huge things like wrong setting will pull me out of a story almost as quickly as poor grammar, punctuation and writing style.


It really does help to be personally familiar with your setting.  That doesn't mean you had to spend most of your life in a specific city or state, or even a foreign country.  Much can be learned from others and from research.  Details can be broad, instead of specific.  But a child's party set outside in February in northeast Kansas probably won't work.  It snows in Kansas in the winter, and February is known for its snow here.  Sometimes, especially in that area, quite a lot.

I've set books in a variety of locations.
  • A ranch in Montana
  • Rodeo arenas in different areas of the country
  • Small and large ranches in different states
  • Kansas City
  • A dude ranch in the Hill Country of Texas
  • A casino in Bosier City, Louisiana
  • Small town Oklahoma and Kansas
Sitting in my drawer are manuscripts that may not see publication, and these, too, have varied settings.  A tropic island, the mountains of Colorado, Maine, a large city and more.  

I've been to Montana and know other people who live there.  I have friends in Texas and Oklahoma.  I've traveled to 48 of the 50 states, and I've been in a casino.  Twice.  I was a baby the first time and was asked to leave. ☺ I've lived in a larger city, a small town and on a farm.  I haven't been to Paris or London or Tokyo, but I could find enough information to set a story there, if I really wanted to.

If your book is set in the past, you'll have more research to do about locations, society, mores, transportation, dress, and...  For a book set in the future, you'll have more leeway.  Still, if it's set on earth and not a galaxy far, far away, you'll need to know what has changed and why.


Back in high school English class, we studied many of the classics.  We were given several books by different authors to choose from.  Somehow that I don't remember, my author was Thomas Hardy.  Did I choose Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Far from the Madding Crowd?  No, I chose Return of the Native.  I wish I could say I remember the story.  I don't.  What I do remember is plunging into the book, wishing I'd chosen anything else.  Well into it, our teacher gave us a hint:  Skip the first 50 pages or so.  It's nothing more than a description of the landscape of the moors.  Go back and read it after you finish reading the rest of the book.  Well, duh!  By then, I was well into the book and understood very well why skipping those pages might be a good idea.

We're different than the people who lived during that time.  Our lives have become hurry-up-and-get-there, and we want to read stories that have beginnings that don't bore us.  We also don't care for long, tedious descriptions of anything.  In one book I read, years ago, the heroine took the hero on a tour of her house.  All the furnishings and knickknacks were included.  I didn't get far with my reading.  I didn't really care about all her things.  I really don't enjoy a description of what each character wears each day.  Well, I might, if the character's taste in clothing is a bit odd, but keep it at a minimum, please.

On the other hand, giving a reader an idea of the tastes and likes of a character can be important.  A two-story ranch house.  A log cabin in the woods by a lake.  An upscale townhouse in the city, with every conceivable amenity.  If the tub is sunken, say so.  Is the house light and airy or filled with antiques?  Antiques?  Beautiful!  But don't describe every time in each room.

In my upcoming August Harlequin American Romance, The Cowboy Meets His Match, the heroine asks the hero for a brief tour of his home.  They'd known each other as children, but it's been many years since they've seen each other.  The hero now owns the ranch that had belonged to his uncle.
   “This really is a beautiful house,” Erin said, taking in everything as Jake gave her a tour. “I don’t recall ever being in it when we were growing up. Are these your uncle’s furnishings?”
   “Some,” he said, “but I’ve made a few changes.”
   She didn’t remember him being all that interested in things like colors and decorating. She hadn’t been, either, and she wanted to learn how much he’d changed over the years they’d been apart. “Show me.”
   As they walked down a wide hallway, the heels of her fancy shoes clicking on the polished wood floor, he pointed out several paintings. “I picked these up at different places, here and there. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada.”
   She studied the beautiful landscapes hanging on the walls, and turned to him. “You traveled around a lot?”
   “A little. I worked at four different ranches over the past…well, I guess it’s been about thirteen years. I learned something new at each one, so it was worth it.”
Those paintings were a quick way to convey information about the hero's past to the heroine, without getting into a long and complicated explanation or saying 'you've been gone a long time.  What did you do?'  A little later, and another small detail:
   (snip) He led her back to the living room, where she put the glasses on a large, low table.
   He poured the champagne into the glasses, and she took the one he offered. After setting the bottle aside, he took her hand and settled her on the long, red sofa, then sat next to her. “Comfortable?”
A small thing, here and there--a few paintings, a red sofa, and maybe a gleaming wood floor, give the reader an idea of the space where the character lives.  And it can all be scattered throughout the scene in bits and pieces, both in internal thoughts and dialogue.

Or maybe it's clothing.
It's clear from the beginning that my heroine isn't a frilly, girly-type girl.  A former barrel racer, now working on a ranch, she wears jeans and T-shirts, boots, and a hat nearly all the time.  Her choice of clothing is only randomly mentioned...until she wears a dress to formal dance.  Long, black, sleek, with a low neckline and a back that dips down to her waist.
   Erin stared at her reflection in the antique cheval mirror. The dress Glory had insisted she buy had her wondering if she’d lost her mind. She’d never worn anything like it.
   Standing behind her, Glory smiled. “It’s beautiful, Erin. I knew that dress would be perfect.”
   Pressing her lips together, Erin’s gaze met Glory’s in the mirror. “You’re sure it’s not too much?” She smoothed her hands down the black fabric that fit like a second skin. “I mean—”   "Perfect"
Later, from the hero's POV:
His gaze lingered on the low neckline of her dress.
And again:
“Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?” he asked, rubbing his thumb on her bare back. “And where’d you find this dress?”
There's no detail by detail description of the dress.  Give the reader the basics, and then let imagination fill in what isn't described.

Use sensory details, when possible.  Using smoothed her hands shows the fabric is sleek and soft. The low neckline of her dress, mentioned later, tells the reader a little more detail.  And rubbing his thumb on her bare back finishes the description, because a man's hand while dancing is usually placed in the middle or lower back of his partner.

The same small descriptions can be used with anything.  Because settings are integral in our story, especially at the beginning when we want to set the stage, descriptions will do that.  Make it special.  Try for an opening hook and set that stage.
Trish Clayborne sat in the warmth of her car at the stop sign, blinking away the tears filling her eyes.  Home.  She was almost home.
Obviously the character is feeling emotion.  Sad or happy?  We don't know.  Yet.  And it must be cold weather, if she's in the warmth of her car.
From the intersection of the county road and the main street of town, Desperation, Oklahoma, resembled something out of a foggy dream.  Colorful, twinkling lights draped the storefronts, and giant red and white candy canes adorned each of the street lights.  A misty haze, caused by the remnant of the dusting of snow that barely covered the ground, created halos around the lights and gave the deserted street an eeriness that contradicted the friendliness of the town and its inhabitants.  ~~The Lawman's Little Surprise (HAR July 2010)
 The intersection of the county road and the main street of town, plus the stop sign in the previous paragraph, shows it's more than likely a small town.  The name of the town is given, and we now know the location: Desperation, Oklahoma.  We know it's near Christmas because of lights draped on the storefronts and especially the red and white candy canes.  We learn about that foggy dream, by a misty haze, and what causes it--a remnant of the dusting of snow that created halos around the lights.  The town (street) appears deserted and eerie, yet it's a contradiction of the friendliness of the town.  We now know it's a small town, probably late at night and near Christmas.  Your first thought after reading that paragraph is that it's a good place to live.  It's home to the character.  So why is she crying?

Most books now don't start with long description.  We're told that a story needs to start when something happens and everything changes.  Starting with dialogue works well, as do internal thoughts.  Don't take my word for it, or even my examples.  Read some of your favorite books by your favorite authors and see how they do it.
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. ~ Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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