Thursday, November 21, 2013

Setting the scene

Pigeon Point Tobago, setting of a scene in Cafe au Lait
Settings, both in my reading and writing, are often as important to me as character and plot. I treasure writers
who can bring a location, time and social context so vividly to life that I feel I've not just read about a place but actually spent time there. What is setting precisely? It's the overall atmosphere (place, time, society) and the particular physical setting of each scene.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami, from Give Me the Night
When I think of alluring settings, Gerald Durrell's Corfu stories come to mind. His stories which are set in Africa, Argentina, Guyana and other places are equally compelling setting-wise. If I ever make it to his zoo on Jersey Island, I'm sure I'll recognize the place. I can even recall the smell of animal droppings in his backyard in England when it used to be cluttered with animals in cages--though I've never visited that island. I can hear his neighbors quarreling over the fence about the squawking of the exotic birds and screeches of the primates, just as I'm painfully familiar with the colonial India of E.M. Forster, the dust-clogged Canadian prairies of Farley Mowat, and the blistering near-mystical Australian outback of Arthur Upfield. Yes, I'm a setting whore of sorts.

The settings in my books are usually places I know intimately, such as the Caribbean and South Florida, or that I've imagined intimately, such as the post-apocalyptic barren permafrost wastes in my speculative short story, Bird. Whether the scene is a placid
Arctic tundra, similar to the landscape in Bird
beach or a tropical swamp, a Miami metropolis of highways and metrorails or a lichen-covered polar wasteland, I labor over the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and rhythms that create that elusive element, setting. To me, these are as important as the speech patterns, personal tics, actions and psychological journeys of the characters. As such, I prize highly the review of an Amazon UK reader who said she was on Google Maps the entire time she was reading one of my stories, following the characters around. This, to me, is proof that the setting came alive and excited the reader to the point where she was living the story, an immersion that's essential to my reading experience, and which I try to create for my readers.

How important is setting to your writing? Do you labor over it, or is it a mere backdrop to that all-important element--the plot?


Charles Gramlich said...

setting is very important to me, even though many of my settings are actually made up whole cloth. Still, they have to call upon the real to work.

M Pax said...

Setting is as much a character as a character to me. I actually usually visualize the setting first and the character comes naturally out of that.

G. B. Miller said...

To a degree, setting is essential to my stories.

I live in a small state and having travelled/seen a good chunk of it, I use a lot of it in my stories.

I figure since at least one thing in my story should be reality based, it might as well be my settings.

William Doonan said...

I like what M Pax said up there - the setting becomes a character. In my Henry Grave series, each cruise ship that Henry works on is a character in its own right.

Joanne said...

Character is how I find my way into a story, usually. But setting is critical both in terms of me being able to lose myself in what I'm writing and in the reader being able to experience it fully. It grounds the story; the detail, the contouring, the contextualizing of that world bringing both authenticity and relatability to the story. Or that is my hope anyway. Most of the books I would have read growing up would have been from other places, making an emotional connection with the character was key, but when the setting was well rendered, it would feel like I'd been there. Some of my favourite reader reviews of my work (especially my novel Oh Gad!) acknowledge a similar effect.