Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Setting as Inspiration

Two landscapes, both rocky, empty places by the water. Yet what different stories you would—or, I think, should—write set in each location!

Many authors start a story knowing only a character or characters. Some start with an image, situation, or plot idea. Some wake up from a dream with a story partially or even fully formed.

I almost always start with a setting. That setting may be a location, a time period, a society, or all three simultaneously. Only once I know the setting do I come up with characters and a plot appropriate for it.

For a romance writer, for whom characters and their personal development are core to their books, starting with characters is probably the best approach. For a science fiction or horror writer, by contrast, starting with an idea or image may work particularly well.

Many authors seem to have little choice in how they begin a story. One method or another comes naturally and other methods seem alien. I suspect successful writers unconsciously choose their genres in part by how story ideas come to them.

What strengths is a story likely to have if the author starts with a setting?
  • It is unlikely to suffer “white-room syndrome” (see my earlier post “Building a World”). Instead, the world is likely to be fully fleshed out and believable.
  • Its characters may be more authentic because the author was particularly conscious of the setting’s social and physical limits on thoughts and actions.
  • The setting is more likely to function as a character, influencing goals, creating conflicts, and enriching the story.
Some examples of books in which a rich setting inspires plot and behavior and even makes the reader feel as if she were there are:
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction)
  • The “Master at Arms” romance series by Jennifer Blake (New Orleans in the 1840s)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (New Orleans in the 1960s)
  • The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (a fantasy world modeled after medieval Spain)
  • The “Sebastian St. Cyr” mystery series by C.S. Harris (Regency England)
  • The “Sano Ichō” mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland (17th century Japan)
Indeed, setting is so core to these books that none could take place in any other location and most in no other time period.

Despite being a setting-first writer, I acknowledge that starting with a setting has its weaknesses:
  • Characters may be overly shaped by the setting and not have distinct-enough individual personalities.
  • The story may be overburdened with description of rooms, landscapes, clothes, customs, and other setting details the author fell in love with.
  • Some readers may have to work harder to put themselves into a story when an alien setting is well set up; a vague setting allows readers to fill in missing information with comfortable, familiar details from their own experience.
How do you start a book—with setting, with characters, with a plot, with a dream, or some other way? How do you as a reader feel about books with strong settings?


Win a book! My second annual birthday contest is now going on at my personal blog, For Love of Words (http://ShaunaRoberts.blogspot.com). Two commenters will be randomly chosen to win a book of their choice by anyone I’ve interviewed at my blog or a copy of my October release, Like Mayflies in a Stream. To enter, just comment on this post.


I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 8 October, when I’ll talk about writing Like Mayflies in a Stream. I look forward to seeing you then!

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I think I'm a setting writer too. You make a good point about how setting may shape character, but I'm not sure if it could shape character "too much." I think our settings, like me growing up on a farm, have profound impacts on us the rest of our lives. We are all warped by our settings to some extent.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I'll say I'm a combination. Sometimes I wake up with an idea from a dream and hustle to get it down, other times it's a the characters that drive the story and I build in time and space, and on occasions I want it to take place in a specific location so the setting would drive the stories. But 75% of the time I'd say it's the characters or a particular situation that drives the story.

Genella deGrey said...

Great post, Shauna!

I love books with strong settings! Sometimes the setting is written so well and is so intricately involved that it's practically a character.

Other question: How do you start a book—with setting, with characters, with a plot, with a dream, or some other way?

Usually the characters come to me first - while I'm awake (LOL) but I have had a dream about a character that unfolded into a full story. (This one, "Unmasked" will be out in June next year.)

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I have made the mistake of letting the setting influence characters too much. It was a problem of not remembering that there's always an oddball or two who doesn't fit into their society and that even among people who are greatly constrained by their setting (such as the Amish) personality differences still should show through.

CHARLES, JEWEL, and GENELLA, I envy all of you for getting story ideas from dreams. Only once have I turned a dream into a short story; other dreams haven't been suitable for stories, let alone books.

Glad you enjoyed the post, GENELLA.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Do you know this is so true. I have usually started all my stories and novels with a character. Indeed I wrote 30,000 of my second novel from that startpoint. But, following feedback and re-reading, I realised that it wasn't really 'alive,' there was no soul to it. (I hope you know what I mean.)
When I've finished my current project, I intend to start again and very much consider the setting/time period etc.

warm wishes

Phyllis Bourne said...

I've spent a lot of time romanticizing a setting I frequently use in my stories. I recently went back there and didn't like it very much.

Now I can't determine if it changed or if it was always like that and I built it up to be fabulous in my head.

Farrah Rochon said...

Since my first few books were set in New Orleans, I had no choice but to put a heave focus on the setting. A city such as New Orleans demands it. But as I think about other stories I've written, the setting does dictate the feel of the story. Whether it is Small Town USA, or New York City, the setting helps to set the pace.

Great post, Shauna!

Liane Spicer said...

I can't remember actually starting a story with a setting, but for all but one thing I've written, setting has played a major role.

The exception is my second novel and now that I'm thinking about it, there might be a bit of the white room problem there. I suspect I largely ignored the physical setting and focused on the characters and plot because the setting is very urban which I find uninteresting, whereas more natural - in the sense of nature abounding - settings light me up. When I'm in love with a setting the reader certainly knows it.

One of my stories started as a dream. That one was weird in that it's a genre (sci-fi) I've never had any desire to dabble in.

Bluestocking Mum - welcome!

Rae Ann Parker said...

I enjoy settings that are so strong they become a character in the book. I often start with a character, but sometimes a setting will grab me and demand a story.