Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Importance of Setting

Picture your favorite place on earth. Do the memories evoke a sense of familiarity, the taste of your favorite food, the scent of a forest after rain, a view that symbolizes peace, the songs of birds? Writers draw readers into the setting by immersing themselves in setting and character. When the writer feels the rain, the setting becomes a character in and of itself.

Authors, both historical and contemporary, must create a milieu (environment, setting, background, atmosphere), which quickly becomes familiar to the audience. Two elements are necessary: 1) the author must be familiar enough with the setting to write believably; 2) the writer must find vibrant elements to portray the setting that draw the reader into the story world from the outset.

A few authors stand out as masters of setting. Charles Dickens brought 19th century England and its people alive. Mark Twain carried us down the Mississippi on a raft with a runaway slave. The Grapes of Wrath evoked the sweltering heat of the sun, the grit of the dustbowl, and the uncertainty of the future. Les Miserablés transported us to Paris streets clamoring with desperate mobs, while Pride & Prejudice conjured up drawing rooms of aristocrats unable to think beyond the next day’s pleasures or an advantageous marriage.

An editor once said my manuscript displayed “the author's knowledge and seemingly firsthand experience with Scottish culture and geography through vivid descriptions of the terrain and generally well-used cultural placements”. I met my goal, having spent a total of two weeks in Scotland.

So how do writers achieve a setting that becomes a character itself?
  1. Immerse yourself in the culture in every way possible. The minute details that only come through personal experience are invaluable. I would not have known that when you order water in a Scottish restaurant they asked if you prefer “still” or “sparkling”. A cellphone is a “mobile”, and entrance and exit signs say “way in” and “way out”.

  2. Familiarize yourself with unique and minute aspects of the culture. Popular music, clothing, customs, and holidays add an extra dimension to a scene. Whether or not you have been there, have someone knowledgeable about the area read your manuscript. Create a screensaver of photos, your own or from the internet, that lend accuracy to descriptions. A playlist of popular and folk tunes enhances the writer’s ability to add depth. Smells, sounds, and common sights are essential to the reality of your characters.

  3. Knowledge of colloquialisms and native language lends reality. If foreign words are appropriate, revealing definitions within the text works better than a glossary in this day of e-books. The spicy language of my home state in New Mexico includes terms such as adobe, ristra, mesa, frijoles, luminarias, posole, chili, familiar to us, confusing to visitors.

  4. Contemporary requires as much research as historical. One or two plausible fictional settings can work, but knowledge of actual restaurants, historical sites, and tourist attractions add authenticity. The reader of a contemporary work should find things familiar if they live in or visit the scene of the book. Visiting the House of Seven Gables in Massachusetts gave the book new meaning.

  5. Understand weather and seasons, using similes, metaphors, and descriptions that enhance the effect of the environment on the mood of characters and lend insight into the lifestyle of natives. For example:
  • Bonny’s tears began and ended with the intensity of a New Mexico thunderstorm.
  • Scotland and New Mexico are as different as water and dust.
  • The day was as dreich as Kieran’s mood.
  1. Television programs, documentaries, news on the internet, and knowledge of history can explain why people do things in a certain way even in contemporary works.
Like a method actor, a writer must be so familiar with their story world that they write with a sense of being there. Setting enhances both characters and story. Immerse yourself to the point you experience the emotions you desire to evoke in your audience. Getting it right can hook a reader from the first page.

© Copyright by Norma Gail Thurston Holtman, July 7, 2016. Used by permission.

Norma Gail is the author of the contemporary Christian romance, Land of My Dreams. A women’s Bible study leader for over 21 years, her devotionals and poetry have appeared at, the Stitches Thru Time blog, and in “The Secret Place.” She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Romance Writers of America. Norma is a former RN who lives in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband of 40 years. They have two adult children.

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Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas Bookstore: http://

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