Thursday, October 2, 2008

Settings: the invisible character

What is it about your setting that will make a reader remember it like it was another character in the book? Have you given them enough meat to sink their teeth into, to make them feel the music of the town where your book happens?

One of my favorite authors, Cleo Coyle (pen name for a husband and wife writing team) uses a lot of New York flavor throughout her cozies to give the reader not only an enjoyable backdrop for the book, but a history and geography lesson as well.

I find this to be a sort of balancing act as I write, because I do not want to put in so much setting and color and history that the reader becomes bored and skips ahead, or worse yet, quits reading. But done well enough, you will have a tool that can round off all the rough edges of your story.

Setting can also be the item that sets the mood of the book, too. I mean if you show us dark, trailing fingers of Spanish moss, not only do we know we are in the South and even on the coast perhaps, but we feel sort of smothered, troubled, which is a great way to set a Gothic, or suspense story.

If you set it in a barbeque restaurant with the thick scents of the waterfront all around you, and great big paddle-wheelers gleaming in the afternoon sun, you may find yourself deep into a book about Memphis, and the Mississippi River loaded with the belles of the south, the sweet riverboats.

My sister is the best describer there ever was and when she mails me about the flame-colored maples in the Vermont countryside, I feel as though I am there.

Setting in a book is the most important thing in a book says some readers. Do you know why? I will show you:

From William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel's frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.

The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laidby cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.
The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path.

When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.

You can just FEEL the literary music in this piece. That is why setting is so important.


Marta Stephens said...

Excellent examample! It's a real talent to be able to paint a picture that will pull the reader in even if he or she has never been to the place before.

Very nice!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Kim, this is a piecea after my own heart. A sense of place is incredibly important to me, whether as a reader or writer. I think that's why I need to have "lived" in a place for a while to properly describe it and paint the pictures that bring the readers into a scene. Wonderful example, above. Thanks so much for sharing with us!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I too believe that setting is important. The reader should be able to see the place where the action takes place.

Unknown said...

So it is seeing what is there and writing what you see is what I am gleaning from this. I used to be able to do that no problem, and I didn't realize that's what I was doing when I did it!! LOL Thank you so much for the informative blog!