Friday, January 15, 2010

Where to go w/Your Set Piece…SETTING the Stage…Setting is Character

Setting quite often is not only what entices a reader to open a book (“Oh, look…it is set in my home town of Seattle!”) but it is often what entices a writer to begin a novel (“Fascinating place…think I will set a book down here, and why not?”). Setting is as important as the author or reader want to make it, it would seem. In fact, if an author’s attitude toward his setting is that he simply wants or needs a generic city – any city of a given size and population will do, then that surfaces in the story; and some authors do quite well with quick few broad strokes to construct their metropolis or countryside or small town. I admire those who can do this well, immediately place you into middle America or a village in Tanzania or Mexico and get on with the plot and characters. I also admire those who can take a village, a town, or a city, or an entire island nation or country and delve deeply into its complex character – thus making it a separate but equal character in the cast of characters in the novel. The former takes as deft a hand, but the later takes a deft hand and a good deal of research and/or experience with a place.

James Lee Burke’s novels come instantly to mind when one thinks of the New Orleans area, in particular New Iberia, LA. Mark Twin leaps to mind for Life on the Mississippi and for Missouri in particular. Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens for 18th Century London and environs. Some authors are so closely associated with a given geography that we must know it is due to their depiction of that area in such intimate terms due to their intimacy with place.

Setting does not always take such prominence in a novel, but when it does get “captured” like a running film with all its quirks, pimples, darkness, and light, it becomes a character in a sense, one the main character interacts with, relates to, is fascinated with and loves and often protects, or detest and is often at odds with and will decry its ugliness for instance. And true sometimes the protagonists has terribly ambivalent feelings about his or her surroundings—be it Chicago, LA, New York, Miami, Houston, etc…etc…

In Pure Instinct, I became so enamored with Hawaii that I provided a complete character of it, but in the novel it is my interpretation, the place having been put through the prism of Dr. Jessica Coran’s eye—sifted through the mind and heart of my protagonist. This makes the character of Hawaii in that novel uniquely mine, yet it is based on facts and research and having visited the state, and having come away with a powerful, moving impression that the place made on me, the author. Until then, I had never so thoroughly engrossed myself in presenting setting as character, but here was a setting that informed all the characters in the story and shaped them as well. After writing Pure Instinct, I began a concerted effort to always “characterize” my settings; to make setting equal out to character. As a result, that plan has served my novels well from my depiction of 1893 Chicago in my Inspector Alastair Ransom series to modern day Atlanta in Dead On, Houston in my Edge Series, and a variety of major cities in my Instinct Series as well as Early New England of 1692 infamy in Children of Salem.

Whether an author chooses to use quick and generic brush strokes or fine and detailed brush strokes regarding setting, the attitude an author strikes about this extremely important element in story is all important. In short story, I feel, the quick, generic strokes are needed due to space limitations, but in a novel, I look to do the finest detail work I can muster…but that’s just me.

Let me know what you think of Character is Setting. Would love to hear from you! I imagine that I have sketched a city near you at one time or another.

Happy Reading and Writing,
Rob (free 8 chapter peek at Children of Salem)


maureen hume said...

Great subject! I'm often influenced on whether to buy a book or not because of the setting. Especially in a series where the reader really feels in touch with the landscape.

Norman Wilson said...

Excellent and informative.

Anonymous said...

Rob: Enjoyed your 'setting' blog immensely. It's so important for the 'feel' of the entire novel. In my Merrivale series I tried to make my fictional city a typical small town but one with a history and one a reader would like to visit again.
Hope 2010 is a great year for readers and writers too,
Jackie Griffey

Debra St. John said...

Setting really is an important part of a book and can be almost like another character in some cases.

I always find it's a setting that inspires me, and the book forms around that. Most of the settings in my books are places that I've actually been to. I think it helps to add an air of authenticity when I'm not just guessing about things!

Great post, Rob.

jenny milchman said...

As a reader I am much less influenced into buying a book by setting than by premise or situation. As a writer, though, I find that setting often rears its head far more than I anticipated, taking on just the role of character you suggest. I'm not sure what explains the disconnect--but...great topic!

Morgan Mandel said...

Setting makes a big difference in a novel. There are some places for some reason I just don't care to read about.

Morgan Mandel

Rob said...

I appreciate everyone's comments; I try to challenge myself with settings by writing about far away places with strange sounding names at times, taking it out of my comfy territory as in Chicago that I know so well. But I had a story that had to be plunked down in India once, Cuba, once, London, once. Sometimes the story, the situation, the plot deamnds a certain place be used for this particular tale. Again thanks everyone. Will check back later.

Kelly Irvin said...

I agree that setting is influenced by the author's perception of a city. A Deadly Wilderness takes place in San Antonio, which is very much a character. My San Antonio--as a transplant from Kansas who has lived in the suburbs for 20 years. Very different from the San Antonio of Rick Riordan's Tres Navarro novels. Both are authentic in the sense that all kinds of people live in this city and see it through the eyes of their experiences here. Everything I've written has been set in Kansas or Texas . . . maybe I need to branch out.

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Dear Rob,

I agree. I probably choose 90% of my reading based on setting. TV and movie-watching, too, for that matter. As a writer, setting is one of the things that inspire me most. Your point that setting should be given through characters' eyes is very important for keeping it alive. And it then follows, that research is of prime importance.

Donna Fletcher Crow

Rob said...

Nice to know that PD James agrees with my point of view but also nice to know that yous guys do, too. Many of my best reviews have gone into how I have created a unique setting of a "tired old town" like Chicago. But you name the major city and I may have had some characters in some scnee somewhere talking about it.