Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Where are you from again?: Creating believable settings

Hello again!

For my sophomore entry, I thought I'd say a thing or three about settings.

Setting, in my opinion, can make or break a novel, though in a few instances, it's not that important. A vivid, well-planned, and creatively described locale adds much to a novel. It helps the reader visualize where the characters are, and how their location affects the character's actions and moods. Unless you really like a violent thunderstorm and it calms you, how could you not imagine tension during a powerful, virtually tornadic Kansas thunderstorm? With the weather on the fritz, surely your character's emotions will be tense as well.

However, weather is only one element in setting. If your story takes place in a city, real or imaginative, descriptions of the topography (one thing I find that's overlooked a lot in the novels I read), sprawl, age, cleanliness, even style of the buildings and homes adds some small element to the story.

How the characters view the place they are in gives key insight to their mind as well. If they're in the country, are they at home? Do they enjoy the wide open spaces? Do cows make them nervous (or moose, elk, deer, etc.)? Do they affect the dress of the area, or do they stand out like a penguin in Times Square?

As I said in my first post, I've had a lot of influences from Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich. With Ms. Roberts, I primarily read her series written under the pen name J.D. Robb, although I've read a few of her trilogies. Both Ms. Roberts and Ms. Evanovich do a wonderful job at creating a setting for their novels that is fitting for the story and the characters. New York City in the 2050s of Eve Dallas' world (Roberts) is so well described that when I read one of the books, I feel like I'm walking down the streets of New York along with Eve. Not only does Ms. Roberts take what's known of New York today and use it effectively, but she's given the city (and for that matter, the world) a marvelous history between now and 2058, when the series opens. I can see the city's scars from the Urban Wars, the damage from terrorism (both actual and fictional), and the effort to rebuild. From Roarke's mansion, to the Down & Dirty, and Cop Central, Roberts has done a wonderful job at wrapping tidbits of detail into her stories that shed light on the world Eve Dallas inhabits.

Janet Evanovich has done a great job as well in her Stephanie Plum series, set in present day Trenton, New Jersey. While I've never been to Trenton, and I understand that it's partially to heavily fictionalized, I sometimes feel like I'm driving down the streets in Big Blue with Stephanie and Grandma Mazur. Vinnie's bail bond's office, Rangeman headquarters, Joe Morelli's house he inherited from his aunt, even the pot roast Mrs. Plum is cooking (and burns while holding it for Stephanie to arrive!)--they all are clear in my mind. What's more, Ms. Evanovich uses some characters to create setting. Lula, a former self-described 'ho-turned-file clerk, while a sidekick to Stephanie's exploits, gives an image of Trenton as Evanovich sees it, and the people you'd find there. Other characters, from Stephanie's best friend Mary Lou (which, as an aside, I've been disappointed that it seems she's been virtually written out of the last few books), to Grandma Mazur, and Connie and her relatives with mob ties paint a clear and sometimes humorous picture of Stephanie's Trenton.

Setting is one of those things that takes time to develop. It's one area I struggle with as a writer, and I hope one day, I'm half as good as the ladies I've mentioned (as well as other authors I admire but haven't mentioned.) An apt example is with my own novel set in 2117. While a small chunk of the action takes place in and around Denver, Colorado, the vast majority takes place off planet where I'm free to create a world only limited by my imagination. As my stories are primarily character driven, the setting has taken a backseat to the story, and I know when I go back for my first rewrite, I'll be spending a majority of the time describing the world in which my hero and heroine inhabit. I'll get to design space stations, spacecraft, resorts, even exotic drinks yet to be dreamt of. On one hand, I'm looking forward to it, the other, apprehensive. One way or another, I'll get through it. At least I have a few authors I admire to look to for inspiration.

Until next time,



K.M. Weiland said...

I have all kinds of respect for authors who can bring settings to vivid life. You hit the nail on the head when you talked about setting being most important in *how* it's viewed through the character's eyes. It can be vital in helping with characterization.

Liberty Speidel said...

Exactly. I think you put it more succinctly than I did!

Anonymous said...

Settings are one of my favorite things, too. And you hit one of my favorites...the weather.

All the items you mentioned are important, though. Placing believable characters in a believable setting are two things that make the difference between a good novel and a great one.

Maggie St. Germaine (Woychik) said...

Just about everything really pertinent to novel writing is new ground for me, so of course, I'm soaking this up, albeit slowly. I'll be back to re-soak, probably more than once!

Great blog, Liberty!

Liberty Speidel said...

Thank you both for chiming in! I really hope that what you read here you find valuable!

Tamera Lynn Kraft said...

Great blog on settings. I have a difficult time being descriptive in my settings.

Liberty Speidel said...

It CAN be difficult. Description is one area of weakness for me, but I'm working on it.

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