Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Setting the Scene

Setting is an essential component of fiction writing, whether a novel or a short story. It’s generally indicated early in a novel or short story and usually developed through narrative description, but there are other means as well.  The details of setting are what make the reader accept the reality of the work.

Here are some suggestions for creating a viable setting:

One: Choose a place you know something about. Maybe you’ve lived there. Maybe you only visited.  But it helps if the writer has some sort of association because the place must have an aura of reality to be believable. My Kim Reynolds mysteries are set in Central New Jersey because that’s where I lived for most of my life. The township in THE BAD WIFE, for example, is based closely on the one I actually lived in.
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Two: If you are using an historical setting, make certain to do considerable research so that your background descriptions are historically accurate. Consider: how did people dress? How did they travel? What did they eat? What were the social, religious and political conventions and ideas of the period? How did people talk? Conversation and vocabulary differ in different time periods.  Also, check timelines to make certain you don’t have important events occurring in a wrong year.
My two published historical romance novels were carefully researched.  For example, TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS is set in Regency England directly after the Napoleonic Wars. THE CHEVALIER is set in Georgian England at the time of the uprising in the Highlands in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  I read both fiction and nonfiction written in the time period as well as numerous historical accounts before I began to write the novels. This was something I enjoyed doing since I have degrees in English and history and taught English at both the high school and university levels.
 
                                                    





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Three: Choose place names that fit the times. Place names are constantly changing. Decide whether or not you should use real place names or imaginary ones. In DEATH LEGACY, real places were used and described.  Manhattan and Washington D.C. are prominently featured, as are actual streets and landmarks, appropriate in this case to lend authenticity to a mystery suspense thriller that is also a spy novel.

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Four: Consider the weather or climate as a component in setting. For example, winter weather works well for a murder mystery novel. Snow and winter can be used to symbolize death. This is true for THE BAD WIFE.

Weather helps to create tone, mood and atmosphere. For instance, a paranormal novel might be dark and foreboding. Thunder and lightening can create tension. Poe is a great one to study in this regard.

Five: Sense impressions are important in the narrative description of the setting. You need them to create a sense of reality. As they say, the devil is in the details. But balance is needed as well. Writers can overload their writing with too much detail or info dumping. Even some very famous authors are guilty of that. Setting details may also be part of characterization, existing in dialogue, action and a character’s thoughts.

What suggestions would you make in regard to the creation of setting?
Your thoughts and opinions welcome here.




26 comments:

  1. Good advice as always, Jacqui. Location, or setting, is as important in fiction as it is in real estate. Our characters don’t exist in a vacuum. If we want them to be believable, they must have place.

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  2. John,

    What you say is true. Setting is as important as any other component in fiction and should interconnect with the others: character, plot and theme.

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  3. Helpful suggestions, Jacqueline. Thank you.

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    1. Sharon,

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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  4. Also remember, if using a real town/city check if any streets are one way or if there are round-abouts (especially if it's been a while since you've been there). Most readers might not catch a gaffe of having a car go down a street the wrong way, but those who live in the area will, and that could stop them from trusting the rest of your story.

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    1. Good point, Maris. It's very easy to slip up on things like that. Also, if you've written the book a long time before it actually is published, such things change.

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  5. Great post, Jacquie! I've heard it said that setting can be like another character in a book and that makes sense to me. I've used setting combined with the weather in each of my books and it's invaluable when it comes to setting the mood, especially for a mystery.

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    1. A good mystery does need an ominous quality. Setting can provide that kind of mood and atmosphere.

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  6. Setting is indeed a character in itself in a novel. It can even kill. In a novella I had a huge icicle cut off to fall on a woman's head. In my decade-long Ruth Willmarth series I call the setting Branbury, Vt, and have made a huge map of the area to use even in poems. I think also of Faulkner's famous Yoknapatawpha County where many of his novels are wonderfully set.

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    1. Just the right time of year to have an icicle used as a murder weapon, Nancy. Thanks for sharing that with us. New England offers great settings for mystery novels. Faulkner did create his own county as you point out. His setting was perfect for his books.

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  7. Most of my books are set in CO, AZ or TX--states I know well. I use weather a lot...a pouring Colorado rain, dry Texas heat...you get the idea.

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  8. Hi, D'Ann,

    I think you're very wise to use the settings you know well for your novels. It lends your work authenticity.

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  9. I love historical background for contemporary settings. Research is key! I use humidity, heat and storms for drama, cold, dark and ancient for paranormal. Thanks for another helpful blog!

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    1. Hi, Susan,

      I like the idea of an historical background for a contemporary novel. It does work well for paranormals.

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  10. I think the The heavens could be used in setting, they are with us as part of our world, so use them in your descriptions. For example: A full moon in June is called a strawberry moon - It is said one can "Seek forgiveness under a strawberry moon."A sturgeon moon is a full moon in August and it makes people restless and sometimes overwhelmed. You could describe a moon as a gibbous moon, such as "a waning gibbous moon hung in the sky" Lastly,you could describe " the moon was young and thin and gave little brightness to the scene.".
    .

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  11. Mary,

    These are wonderfully poetic! Excellent descriptions of the moon, very romantic.

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  12. I try to give a sense of place in every story I write, but especially in the novels and stories set in India featuring Anita Ray. I want readers to feel they know and understand the area, and appreciate how it affects the characters.

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  13. Susan,

    I love the exotic Indian settings you create in your Anita Ray series. Definitely a strong area in your mysteries.

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  14. A perfect how-to for writers of all skill levels. Remembering to engage the reader's senses is a vital rule too many writers overlook.

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  15. I agree, Mike. Too many writers think sensory appeal is only for poets. Appeals to the senses make make come alive for the reader.

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  16. Correction: Appeals to the senses make the written word come alive for the reader.

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  17. Great article. In my Vietnam era Vintage historical novella I had to not only research the war itself for my war veteran hero, but small town life in Oklahoma USA in the late 60s for my heroine and hero. I needed to know how a gypsy was considered, viewed, in every day life. My main problem while writing was that, because I typically write contemporary, I found it hard to stay in the 60s zone. Music. I listened to online 60s radio whenever I was writing. The vibe the time-specific music provided helped me stay focused on the book's over all tone.

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  18. Hi, Calisa,

    It sounds like you did a very thorough job of researching for your historical novella.

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  19. I did. I found I love researching the golden era. :)

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  20. I love reading and writing about weather and location that act as characters, especially ominous weather. They add so much to a story. Also, houses, properties and even such things as a special garden can come across as characters.

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  21. That's one of things I love about gothic novels. Atmosphere plays such a strong part in creating mood and tone.

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