Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sets, Props, and other Backdrops: What Sets Settings Apart in Fiction?

by Robert W. Walker (

Just how important is setting? In some novels the setting is the novel—Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, Gone with the Wind, The Hound of the Baskervilles. However, we’ve all read mysteries wherein the setting could have been any small town, any city or the “generic” setting as in any cemetery is every cemetery, that a modern day underground parking lot is every parking lot below ground. So yeah, the setting can be “generic” or “specific” depending upon what one’s story wants to do with its backdrops and props. Setting either informs the characters or it doesn’t. Setting is either a foil or it isn’t. What the author wants to do with it decides.

Either setting is or is not sifted through the main character(s) minds. If not sifted through the lead character(s), setting is rather too often set aside as in stopping all action to focus on the Thames or the city of New Orleans or the mountainside and sunset. In some hands, this can be done beautifully. However, setting can be as slippery and as tricky to work with as any other element in a story. Often if the decision is made from the outset—“Will I make setting a major character in the tale or a minor backdrop?” why then I can deal far easier with this element of the scene or chapter or novel. David Morrell and I agree that in every scene at least three of the five senses must come into play; I personally try for all five. Setting can provide much of this scene sense—as in backfill, background music, the sounds and smells of the wharf. However, in many a novel a city is a city, a courtroom is a courtroom, and it works. But there are times when a city becomes a character unto itself, and a courtroom becomes a singularly unique courtroom. It happens in John Grisham in Oxford, Miss., and it happens in Adicus Finch’s courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? Because the author wanted these courtrooms to resonate with meaning and symbolism and they do because of an Adicus Finch’s love of justice. Yet look just how vastly different in character is Finch’s simple, bare courtroom and Grisham’s hugely ornate courtroom. Each of these two courtrooms does have its unique character.

The first time I became aware of setting becoming more important in my own work was when I dared attempt to set Primal Instinct in Hawaii. How was I going to convey terror in paradise? Setting had to be, from the outset, a foil to horror and intrigue and mayhem. But what’d I know of Hawaii? A ten day visit as a tourist certainly didn’t do the job, but the entire time I was on the islands, I continuously “sifted” my impressions and feelings about the place through my character—Dr. Jessica Coran, ME. Through her five senses, her intellect, her emotions. I kept asking myself, “How would Jessica respond to this? What would she see of the underbelly of modern Hawaii? What would she care to know of its past?” At one tourist stop, I said a bit too loud, “What a great place for a killing.” Folks nearby backed off. But it wasn’t me speaking but Jess. I knew then and there that I needed to load up on area maps, underground newspapers, local papers, a tourist guide, and any local books repeatedly showing up on racks.

There is nothing wrong with using a generic setting or simply stating the whereabouts, and some authors do the quick sketch of place brilliantly. We all paint with different size brush strokes. However, if you decide that setting will play a major role in the story, you must—aside from research—allow your characters to act and react within that setting—even to the point of holding a conversation either aloud or in thought with that soothing or menacing setting. Often the setting can change in the blink of an eye from pleasing to threatening. How New Orleans feels and IS to an individual is far more important than restating what you can find in a tourist guide. However, maps, local newspapers, underground “rags”, and tourist guides can be extremely helpful in recalling a place or writing of places you have not lived in or ever set foot in. I’ve set books in many locals that I’ve never set foot in—Chicago in her gaslight era for instance, London, Cuba, India for example.

It all comes down to sifting the place in and out of your main character(s) eyes, ears, nose, fingertips, taste buds. Imagine a world that has never existed—futuristic settings, or settings that no longer exist, as in an historical novel like my own Shadows in the White City. Chicago in 1893 and the Worlds Fair are major “characters” in the story, and each character interacts with the setting. Some find the boomtown admirable, others find it despicable, while others find it challenging. The ocean may be a beautiful lady to one seaman, a deadly killer to another, and perhaps both to a third character. Those combating poverty in 1893 might find any setting at odds with them. I work hard nowadays at setting and setting my characters up against it…or all for it…and sometimes they are challenged by their own preconceived or ingrained notions about their world which ultimately challenges their psyches.

Robert W. (Rob) Walker

1 comment:

Morgan Mandel said...

I have a hard time describing settings since I'm mainly focused on what's happening or what the character is thinking. The hardest thing for me to keep track of in my novels is how much time goes by between scenes, also what month it is. Sometimes I have to do a fast outline to figure it out.
Morgan Mandel