The Perfect Setting

I love a well-written setting. To me, it can bring a story fully to life, make me feel as though I’m there and, when a character reacts genuinely to it, it can give me insight into the very workings of his or her mind.

For the June issue of the Romance Writers Report, RWA’s monthly magazine, I had the pleasure of interviewing six very successful authors on the subject of creating authentic settings in fiction. I loved their advice to writers, most of which I was able to include in the article. But I’d also asked them to share a snippet of one of their setting descriptions from their novels — a perfect show-and-tell moment of their work! Unfortunately, space limitations kept us from being able to showcase these delightful examples of setting in the pages of the magazine, and I thought they were too good to miss, so I wanted to post them here today.

For those who don’t get the RWR, I’m also including the advice Simone, Hank, Laura, Pamela, JoAnn and Lauren shared, along with a few words of my own on the subject. Hope you will enjoy all of these these!!

SIMONE ELKELES: My advice to writers on setting is to pick just a few unique, memorable details and focus on those.

The summit is a few feet away. I stop and look across the sky, getting a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. It’s fucking amazing. I used to live in Illinois, where the landscape was completely flat except for the skyscrapers. Looking out across the Colorado mountains makes me appreciate nature. The wind is at my back, the sun is high in the sky, and I feel invincible. — CHAIN REACTION, Walker, 2011


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Your setting is the life of your novel. Your characters and your plot unfold in that space, and because of that space. Can you imagine To Kill A Mockingbird in somewhere other than Macomb, Alabama?   Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood has the essence of Holcomb, Kansas on every page. Setting is not separate. Your book can only unfold in that one special place. Every action, every decision, every motivation comes from the setting. It’s not sticking in two lines to show off your writing and describe the kudzu and the squawk of the parrots.  It doesn’t mean sticking in two lines to let people know it’s raining, or to show off your research into meteorology to describe the nimbus clouds scudding over the azure sky. As Elmore Leonard famously said–that’s the stuff people skip.  The Titanic. Tatooine. Tulsa. What makes your setting special and unique is what will make your book come alive.

Here’s a moment of a political rally in a hotel ballroom from THE OTHER WOMAN, my novel of suspense coming out this September from Forge. It’s too hot, it’s too crowded, and something is about to go very wrong.

All eyes were on Owen Lassiter. The candidate was headed right for them. His elegant face was flushed with heat but radiating confidence, one hand raised, the other manhandled by voters needing one more handshake or one more autograph. The swirl of people ebbed and flowed around him as the pod of security, candidate in the middle, crabbed across the floor. The crowd seemed to change shape and density, swelling and pushing, cheering and noise and outstretched arms, heat rising from the pack. People jockeyed for position, for access. Everyone wanted to tell him something.   Everyone wanted a piece of him. Jane stood her ground, ignoring the shoves and the shoulders and the jostling. — THE OTHER WOMAN, Forge, September 2012

LAURA MOORE: First, write to your strengths, whether that means creating mood or bringing a city to life. Then, take advantage of all the tools at your disposal to build your setting and make it real for your readers. Make use of libraries, travel guides, internet sites, Google Maps and any visual aids you find helpful. Last, don’t hesitate to ask for help. I’m always amazed by how generous people (and not just fellow writers) are with their knowledge.

Sounds reverberated all around. Horses whickered and kicked out at their wooden stalls, impatient for their morning flakes of hay and rations of grain. Wheelbarrows landed with a heavy thud as they were set down upon the concrete flooring. The voices of the grooms talking while they worked their way down the rows of spacious box stalls accompanied the rhythmical scrape and clatter of grain being scooped out of the barrows and poured into rubber feed buckets. — REMEMBER ME, Ballantine Books, 2010

PAMELA MORSI: The setting should be chosen as carefully as the characters or the plot.  If he doesn’t add to either of those things, then perhaps you are wasting an opportunity.  Just because a setting is beautiful or appealing, doesn’t mean that it necessarily fits with your voice.  I love using San Antonio for setting.  It’s a city that seems to lend itself to a lot of what I’m writing, as does rural Oklahoma and the Ozarks.  But not every great setting works for every voice. I lived in Charleston, SC for ten years and dearly love, love, love the place.  So many wonderful authors have been able to use its charm, character and uniqueness to create wonderful stories.  But never once when I lived there, nor now when I do not, has any story of mine ever lent itself to a South Carolina locale.  I am not beachy, I’m more country than southern and my characters are always more working class than patrician.  If I tried to shoehorn a story into that setting, I would not do justice to my own work or to Charleston.

The sidewalk was full of smokers and spitters.  The light from the open doorway was muted, but the sound from inside was not.  It was a typical Thursday night of cold beer and live music at Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar.  — RED’S HOT HONKY-TONK BAR, Mira Books, 2009

JOANN ROSS: My best suggestion is that if they write about someplace other than where they live or have lived, they should to try to go there. And not just race around outside the hotel for a few hours while attending a conference, but long enough to get into the mood of the place.

However, if that isn’t possible, read, read, read! Not just from travel sites and magazines, but do more personal research from autobiographies, histories, and, what’s often helpful these days, blogs.  I know Florence, Italy fairly well, but when I was writing a High Risk that has a few chapters set in the city,  I ran across a daily blog written by an American woman who was living there for a year, which gave me more insight into how my heroine might have adapted.

And when you’re looking for details, pick up a phone or shoot off an email.  I’ve found people are always willing to answer questions and you may even pick up a reader or two. I once asked a dealership in Wyoming about whether or not you could put a snowplow on a Jeep, and not only did they find me lots of photos online, the women working there were so excited about being mentioned in the acknowledgments, they became loyal readers.

These are lines from a scene in Shelter Bay’s Sea View cemetery where Sax Douchett goes to tell a deceased high school friend that he’s about to marry his wife. I like to think they help set booth place and mood:

The clouds, which had held off until after the parade, began weeping again as Sax drove down the winding drive lined with fir trees from which gray moss hung like ghostly veils. The tall iron gate creaked when he pushed it open, causing some birds in the branches of a century-old western hemlock to take to the leaden sky in a wild flurry of wings.  Fog curled around his boots and the damp earth squished beneath his feet as he walked past a stone angel who’d lost a wing to a tree downed by the great Columbus Day storm of 1962. MOONSHELL BEACH, NAL Signet, July 2012

LAUREN WILLIG: Always remember that your setting is an integrated part of your story; it needs to interrelate with your characters and reflect the mood of the whole.  Your descriptions of your setting should be driven by the needs of the plot and the emotions of your characters.

Rain oozed down the gray stone of the building, seeping through the cracks in the masonry, puddling in the crevices in the paving. Tucked away in a corner, a stone angel wept over the round mouth of a well, raindrops dripping down her face like tears. The long windows were the same unforgiving gray as the stone.  – THE ORCHID AFFAIR, Dutton, 2011.

MARILYN BRANT: When your main character walks into a room or visits a location, try to filter as many aspects of the new setting as you can through your character’s point of view. It helps readers to know what this person considers important and the attitude with which he or she approaches the world. You want everything your character is smelling, seeing, hearing or feeling to come across as unique to that person and relevant to his or her specific experience.

The jingle of silver bangles and the tinkling of wind chimes on the Ponte Vecchio harmonized with the laughing lilt of the Italian language swirling around her. She heard the splash of a stone being thrown into the languorous waves of the Arno River and a child’s high-pitched giggle. The rustle and patter of fellow tourists, punctuating their walk with an unpredictable syncopation, added an undercurrent of rhythm to the soft hiss of rushing water and the whisper of silk scarves dancing on their secured metal hooks. — A SUMMER IN EUROPE, Kensington, 2011

If you’re a writer, please feel free to share a couple of lines that you wrote that you think really encapsulate the setting of one of your stories, and/or if you’re a reader, I’d love to know if there’s a book you’ve enjoyed where you thought the setting was written especially well. Wishing you all a fabulous Friday! :razz:

About Marilyn Brant

Marilyn Brant is a chocolate addict, a music junkie and the USA TODAY bestselling author of ACCORDING TO JANE (2009), FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE (2010) and A SUMMER IN EUROPE (2011), all from Kensington Books, as well as a number of light romantic comedies, including THE SWEET TEMPTATIONS COLLECTION (2013) and PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND THE PERFECT MATCH (2013). Her latest novel -- a coming-of-age romantic mystery called THE ROAD TO YOU -- was just released in October 2013!
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14 Responses to The Perfect Setting

  1. Edie Ramer says:

    Fun to read all the different bits! I like to ground the reader in a place in each scene as soon as possible, but usually it’s just a few words or a half sentence. My new series, Miracle Interrupted, is set in a tiny village in northern Wisconsin. My books aren’t inspirational, but I did have a scene located a non-traditional church that isn’t normal for the area. Because of that, I described it a bit more than usual:

    The first thing that struck Becky about the lobby of the church was the brilliant light that gave it a sense of peacefulness. The light oak-floored lobby invited her to grab an oversized cushion, sit cross-legged on it, and meditate…something Becky kept saying she should do but somehow never scheduled in. From the long windows she could see the green grass and the triple line of trees that separated the church from her father’s four acres of land.

    • Edie, I love small-town settings and, as you know (!!), I especially love them when they’re in Wisconsin :). Thanks for sharing your wonderful description — I’ve felt what Becky experienced in a few small churches, too — and I’m really looking forward to your new series!
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …A Summer in Europe…the Vlog!

  2. Amy Remus says:

    As a reader, the author that comes to my mind is Maureen Miller in all of her books. She describes her settings in a way that makes you feel the cold snow or the sticky hot jungle or the warm ocean breezes. She makes you really want to be there in that setting or really NOT want to be in that setting. I like a lot of description in the setting – it helps me to really visualize myself there and what the characters might be feeling, too. Thanks for the post – fun topic!

  3. Amy Atwell says:

    What fun, Marilyn! Thanks for including all those great snippets and covers.

    I’ll add my snippet, a description of my hero’s first glimpse of the estate he’s inherited from AMBERSLEY:

    His concerns mounted as he and Harry trotted their hired hacks along the winding drive flanked by pruned trees not yet in blossom. Derek noted vast meadows stretching to forest, a small lake and rolling slopes dotted with ornamental hedgerows and pockets of trees and shrubbery. As they rounded a bend in the drive, he took in his first view of Ambersley Hall situated atop a hill as imposing as any monarch on his throne.

    Derek drew rein to study the four-story façade while his pulse settled. There was no denying the magnificence of the structure, though its once golden stone exterior was blackened with soot, while its gabled roof—or what remained of it—met the clouds at a defiant, if broken, angle. Windows that once beckoned weary travelers were bricked over, turning what should have been a home into a mausoleum. Nestled amid carefully manicured lawns and gardens, the flagstones before it swept clean, the Hall reminded him of a slow-healing wound that required time and tender care to restore it to its former glory.

    • Amy,
      I loved your description of the roof meeting the clouds at a “defiant, if broken, angle”!! I can’t wait to finally get to read Ambersely — I bought it ages ago and it’s been waiting for me so patiently in my ebook cue while I attempted to catch up on my life… This summer for sure!! Thanks so much for sharing a snippet from the story ;).
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …A Summer in Europe…the Vlog!

  4. Laura Moore says:

    I love reading everyone’s different perspective on how to approach setting. So interesting. Thanks for the great post, Marilyn!

  5. JoAnn Ross says:

    Thanks for sharing the excerpt from my upcoming book, Marilyn! I’m delighted I could help with the article and what fun reading other’s takes on the topic. All which I agree wholeheartedly with! As I think I probably said in what I sent you, to me, setting has always been another character. 🙂

    • JoAnn, it was my pleasure, and I completely agree with you on setting as another character! When it’s done well like that, I can’t imagine a story being set anywhere else… Thanks, again :).

  6. Liz Kreger says:

    Since the two books I have published are romance space operas, I was able to make up my own settings. In the first book, I had to create several unique settings since it took place on a couple of different planets. I think its really important to ground your reader in the time and place. I’ve read books where I didn’t have a clue as to where it was based and that (to me) was very unsettling and I never finished the books. 😯

    Loved reading the different posts, Marilyn. 😆

    • Liz,
      You’re so right about the importance of helping readers to feel grounded. I know that I have issues with that, too, as a reader. I’m very distracted and can’t get into the story until certain primary questions are answered…like what’s the POV character’s name, about how old is he/she, where in the universe is this taking place and in what time period. Once I have the basics, I can usually just relax into the story world, but I do need those first :).
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …A Summer in Europe…the Vlog!

  7. Cynthia Eden says:

    Such great advice! Thanks for sharing!
    Cynthia Eden`s last blog was …Summer Blog Hop

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