Monday, January 20, 2014

Making Your Setting Work (It's a Character, Too!) by JoAnn Durgin

For a long time, I don’t think I truly understood how important the setting is for a novel. For a novel to be successful and resonate with readers, the setting should be a critical component, and so much that it actually becomes an actual character in the book. Think about some famous novels and their settings. Would Gone With the Wind be the same? To Kill A Mockingbird? Tom Sawyer? Would John Grisham’s Pelican Brief (or many of his legal thrillers) be the same without that unrelenting Louisiana heat? It’s difficult to imagine these particular books in any other setting. Sure, it’s the way the author wrote them, but they work. Well.

We’ve all heard it’s best to write what you know, and that extends to setting. I believe this advice is sound and good. Most authors make the settings of our books places we’ve either lived, currently live in, or else we’ve visited and done a lot of research in order to make it authentic. I wrote about San Antonio in my debut novel, Awakening, but I’ve only visited once for three days, and longer ago than I care to remember. But that’s all it took to ingrain the sights, sounds and general “feel” of this marvelous city in my mind. I visited some of the missions, the Alamo, the Riverwalk and the downtown open air markets. It was enough to spur the creative spark in me, and I knew I wanted to make it the setting of a book.

One of the biggest compliments you can get as an author is for the natives of a region you use as a setting to tell you, “You nailed it.” Here’s a confession: my second novel, Second Time Around, takes the reader from Massachusetts (where I lived for nearly eight years) to Montana. I’ve lived in Massachusetts, and the house used as my characters’ home in that book was based on our house outside of Boston. However, I’ve never even flown over much less set foot in Montana. For a large portion of the book, I needed a setting with lots of wide open spaces and freezing cold weather in November (representing the hopelessness and isolation of the main character when they first arrive), but also a setting with great opportunities for adventure and danger (on a working ranch). Being a romance, of course, there has to be a place which can also offer romantic possibilities (cold weather, warm fires, hot chocolate…you get the drift). But at least I have writer friends in Montana (thank you ACFW), and thank the Lord for the wonder that is the Internet and Google. This writing journey would be a lot harder without technology, wouldn’t it? 
In subsequent books, I’ve based the setting on places I’ve lived or visited in person, but I’ve gained some details from citizens of that locale and also gleaned information online. My current novella, Echoes of Edinburgh, is based on the famous city in Scotland. Yes, I’ve been there long enough to get a good “feel” of the people, the region, the culture, the customs. But having cousins who visited every summer for 30 years with photography students gave me the American “insider’s scoop” that I never could have found elsewhere. Invaluable details…

What makes a setting memorable? In my opinion, it’s all in the details, folks. They can make all the difference. Anyone can say Texas is hot and dusty during the summer. But how do you show it? By sweat snaking a winding trail down your characters’ backs, or having them frequently wipe perspiration from their foreheads or gulp down water to keep hydrated. They wear lightweight clothing and pray for rain – and when it comes, it can be torrential. Dust swirls around their boots as they walk. Mountain ranges are beautiful. You have tall trees, pathways to follow, beautiful, winding, babbling streams. Rocks to climb. The gorgeous creation of God is all around us, and in many different settings. Make it work for you and your novel!

Cities are sometimes more boring as a setting. They’re full of concrete, glass, passivity and the impersonal. Fill your book with these things, and who’d want to read it? So, what makes a city non-boring? Any number of things. Take Rome, Italy, as an example. I’ve been blessed enough to have visited twice. I will write about it someday because it’s so vibrant and alive in my mind. For such an ancient city, there’s such an absolute joy in living exhibited by the Italian citizens. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to make an impression. But I’d no sooner step behind the wheel of a car in Italy than I’d bungee jump off a cliff. You can almost feel the history oozing as you stroll the city streets, eat pasta in a sidewalk cafe, or sit around a fountain in a piazza eating strawberries purchased from the street market. Paris, France, is full of citizens who aren’t as friendly to tourists, but they sure know how to make pastry. What am I really saying here? There are other aspects such as the weather, circumstances, events, the social mores and customs—they all factor into the overall effect and impact of your novel. Make that passivity—or the liveliness—of a city work as a reflection of what’s going on inside your character.

Of course, conjuring a setting in your own mind can work equally well and, as an author, you have the freedom to create places along with your characters. Personally, I love doing this since no one can point a finger at you and tell you that you got it wrong. Real places change, but fictional locales are at the authors discretion and whims. What fun. I’ve created two fictional settings thus far: Croisette Shores, South Carolina, in my most recent full-length, stand alone novel, Catching Serenity, and Starlight, Iowa, for my Christmas novellas. Small-town, fictional locales definitely have their own unique charm.

I’d love to hear about what settings you either write about or love to read about. What makes them work? No matter your setting, embrace it, indulge yourself in it, fully explore how it can work for your plot and characters. Above all, keep writing and keep reading! Until next time, blessings my friends.

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O Lord, and You exalt Yourself as head over all. 1 Chronicles 29:11

JoAnn Durgin
Matthew 5:16

JoAnns most recent release is Starlight, Star Bright (November 2013), a Christmas novella and sequel to Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (2012) with Pelican Book Group. She is the author of five full-length novels (four in The Lewis Legacy Series). She’s currently working on edits to Echoes of Edinburgh, a Passport to Romance novella, also with Pelican Book Group, in addition to working on Moonbeams, Book #5 in the Lewis series.

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