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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