Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lessons from the Pros ~ Louis L'Amour on Setting

One of my favorite authors, growing up, was Louis L'Amour. I have always been a sucker for a good cowboy story.

So the other day, when I had an afternoon that begged for some relaxation, I picked up one of the many L'Amour books on my shelf and flopped on my bed to read.

Now let me first say, don't go to a L'Amour book for lessons on how to handle Point of View. He wrote in a day and age when "head-hopping" was permissible and used frequently.

However, if you want a lesson on how to create a setting, THIS is a man to study. He can pick you up and drop you into a snake-infested desert canyon in fewer words than it has taken me to write this paragraph.

Sadly, in many contemporary writings, setting seems to take a back seat. We live in a world that has been educated more than any previous generations, simply for the fact that we have the internet at our fingertips both day and night. Some, therefore, have argued that setting is not so important because readers are already familiar with what the writer is referring to. I would challenge that belief.

We read to escape, and what better way to create that illusion of a "new world" than by pulling your reader so deeply into your setting that they forget stress for an afternoon and simply immerse themselves in your story?

Take this opening paragraph from L'Amour's The First Fast Draw. 
When the shelter was finished, thatched heavy with pine boughs, I went inside and built myself a hatful of fire. It was a cold, wet, miserable time, an nowhere around any roof for me, although here I was, back in my own country.
The description is sparse, but by the end of the paragraph you not only feel the chill and damp, but you can see the character huddled around a tiny fire with his coat hunched up around his ears. And the you already have an empathy for him too.

That brings me to another point. Use your setting to help you reveal some secrets about your main character. L'Amour here uses the setting to show us this character is a lonely traveler, just back to his home country.

And notice how setting doesn't have to be paragraph after paragraph of description. Just weave the necessary information in with your action and dialogue.  Pause often to ask yourself what your character is seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing and add those experiences into your setting.

By the way, Google maps is a new favorite tool of mine when I need to add a little more oomph to my setting. It's a very powerful tool - especially the "street" view which allows you to see a 360 degree circle around most major roads now.

Do you have a favorite book or author that does an amazing job creating setting? Or a favorite tool that helps you when you need that little something extra?
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  1. ahhhh...did this bring back memories of laying on the couch 30 years ago reading L'Amour paperbacks.

    But my brows shoot up. If I had guessed what a writer would hilight in his writing, it would be his characterization. Oh, how he could make you feel in the saddle with the protag.

    Ohhhh...I have to re-read those Sackett stories. When a man was a man and a woman could knock your boots off with a look.


  2. For some good short Western stories written by authors who do not head-hop, check out Christmas Campfire Companion, published by Port Yonder Press.

  3. Terrific post, Lynnette. I love L'Amour, both reading his books and seeing the Seleck/Elliott movies made from his stories. Fellow WWW and ACFW member Jane Kirkpatrick has an incredible talent for dropping her readers into her setting. She's worth studying!

    I agree with Mac. L'Amour could create some truly wonderful characters. And I agree with Heidi. PYP's Campfire Companion is destined to be a best seller!

  4. Mac, yes, he had awesome character development, too.

    Heidi, thanks for stopping by.

    Linda, thanks for the pointer to Jane K. I'll have to give her another shot. Couldn't get into the last one I picked up.

  5. Great example! I was just hungering for a good western the other day. Now you've whetted my appetite even more!

  6. One of my great life disappointments was knowing L'Amour would not be around to finish his ambitious and totally original series The Walking Drum.

  7. I love how sparse but descriptive it was! Thank you for the tip! I've never read L'Amour, but I will now.

  8. Talk about memories. My dad introduced me to L'Amour. I grew up on his stories, even read his "Education of a Wandering Man". Very inspirational. I love the seemingly simplistic way in which he crafted a story, yet, it was done in a way that pushes multiple buttons. He is, and will always be, one of my literary heroes. And those Sacketts were the best. Sadly, not enough emphasis is placed on honour and bravery these days. Thanks for this article.

  9. Katie, one of my favorites of his was Flint. That or The Cherokee Trail.

    Phy, I really liked that one too.

    Candace, if you like westerns, I'm sure you'll enjoy him. Thanks for stopping by.

    Woelf, I so agree. We need a lot more emphasis placed on honor and bravery! (P.S. Your spelling brings back memories. :) I grew up overseas but went to an American boarding school. In a paper one time I wrote "honour." My teacher, who was new to the school, called me in and asked me if I was from Britain. :D What a mixed up mind I have when it comes to those types of words, I'm always having to stop and think what the American way of spelling things is, because I grew up seeing them spelled so much the other way. Gray, Harbor, Honor, etc. Anyhow, enough on that bunny trail! :) Thanks for the comment!)

  10. I love the L'Amour westerns and "The Walking Drum". As for the Elliot/Selleck movies... Does it get any better than that? Well, maybe, "The Quick and the Dead" with Sam Elliot, might just be my favorite movie of all time.

    Thanks for bringing all this good stuff back to mind!

  11. Pegg, Yeah, I've always been surprise that more L'Amour movies haven't been made.