Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Depth of Setting

pencils in glassWeak Settings

When I was an instructor for an international correspondence writing school several years ago, I carried a full load of students and hence read tons of manuscripts. I stayed with that position for over nine years. Frequently, I came upon memorable characters in some of the lesson submissions, and sometime I even came upon an engaging plot. But many of the plots were sorely lacking in the third member of that basic triumvirate: setting.

A simplistic definition of setting is a backdrop against which your characters perform. A sense of place is essential to a novel. The successful novelist calls into play every aspect of environment. A lack of visual scene will leave your characters and their actions and interactions, suspended in an empty kind of limbo.

Not a Decoration

When talking about setting, I am not referring to paragraphs of flat descriptions. I’m stagetalking about a backdrop that must be more than impressions painted on scenery panels like a stage play. The setting or background must be interwoven with your characters and what they are doing at any given time.

If you have previously viewed setting as merely a “decoration” for your story, I am challenging you to think again. I would challenge you to think of the story setting as you would a character. This will require that you plumb the depths of the place.

Evoke Reader’s Senses

As you plumb the depths, create ways in which to evoke all the reader’s senses in the descriptions. What sounds and smells are prevalent? What are the prevalent weather patterns? How do the people talk? What foods do they love? If your novel is set in a rather stringent setting, can you move about by using flashbacks to another place and time?

Let this background come to life through your characters’ thoughts, dialogue and actions. No matter how beautifully you describe a room, a season, a day or whatever, your reader is apt to skip over it in order to pick up the thread of the narrative. Let the reader live the setting through that character’s experiences and reactions.

Consider Your Own Roots

Think about how your own roots (where you grew up) colored and affected who you are. Now apply that to your characters. How does the setting affect that character and shape and mold his or her personality? Personally, I know very little about mountains, or the seashore. (sigh) I have lived most of my life in the landlocked, flat Midwest. That is who I am.

In my novel Good-Bye Beedee (David C. Cook’s Quick Fox line) the main character Marcia has lived all her thirteen years on her grandparents’ ranch in Oklahoma. She’s been on horseback most of those years. But then her father remarries (her mother had died years earlier) and moves her and younger brother, Chuckie, to Kansas City. Their first home there is a too-small apartment.

The vast, wide-open, dusty Oklahoma countryside IS Marcia. It’s who she is. She lives and breathes horses. And horses and the ranch go together. Like a magnet she is drawn to a boarding stable that she locates in Kansas City. Can you just imagine what the smell of a stable would do for young Marcia? Leather, hay, feed, horse flesh, even the manure. She loves it all. It’s all part of the setting – the in–depth backdrop for the novel.

Setting As Character

My point here is that the setting is intrinsically interwoven into the characters. Nothing is painted on. Or added in for a dab of color. It establishes the story and carries it. The setting is as real as the characters.

Do you have to know your setting firsthand in order to write about it? The answer is no, you do not. Of course, the more research you can do the better equipped you will be to write about it. Visit if possible. Stay a while if possible. Read as much as you can to give you a clear background. Talk to people who live there. Better yet, talk to people who have lived there for a long time.

Sprinkle; Don’t Shovel

While you can never have too much factual information stored in your subconscious about your setting, you can indeed put too much into your story at a time. Carefully avoid dumping a shovel-full of information just to impress the reader. Believe me, it will be skipped over. (Or the book will be cast aside never to be picked up again.)

Am I saying there will never be a paragraph that simply paints a picture or sets the stage? No, not at all. Just make sure that that is the exception and not the rule throughout the novel. The key is to steadily stir in the information, here a little, there a little.

Show, Don’t Tell

Pull your reader right into the scene by allowing that reader to “experience” the place Be A Novelistrather than your constantly telling about it.

Take your favorite novel, written by your favorite author and notate where the setting has been interwoven by dialogue, or the character’s inner thoughts, or directly through the character’s actions and interactions. You will learn much from such exercises.

Now go back over your own unfinished novel and if this is an area that needs work!


Photos: © Joy Ciaccio |;  © Captainzz |

Books that Transform

Ever have a book come into your life that transformed you?  Bible

Let me qualify at the outset that the Bible has far and away been the most transforming book in my life.  So, with that out of the way, let me clarify my point here.

Robert Benson’s Admonition

Years ago at one of the PIW (Professionalism in Writing) conferences (of which I was the coordinator), a fellow author on staff named Robert Benson gave a presentation regarding what we read and how we read.

“Some books we read informationally,” he told us. “We read the material to gain needed information.  Other books, we read formationally. These particular works,” Robert explained, “form us and transform us.”

As coordinator I was privileged to have a full set of tapes of every session of each cassette tapeconference.  (Yes, girls and boys – tapes – as in cassette tapes. Back in the old days.)  I was fascinated with this concept and played and replayed that tape of Robert’s message till I nearly wore out the tape.

Teachers Who Read Aloud

So at my having set that scene, you may already be far ahead of me thinking of the books that have formed you and even transformed you.  I could cite a number of them myself, but let me share one that came into my life when I was only in the sixth grade. (And yes I really can remember that far back – just in case you’re wondering.)

I grew up in a home sans books.  Can you believe that?  A budding writer in a house with no books.  Ghastly!  Fortunately, from my first grade year through my sixth grade year, all of my teachers used the first half hour of the day as the time to read aloud to us. (After pledge to the American flag and prayers.  I told you it was in the old days!)

Miss White’s Selection

My teacher in sixth grade was a spinster (better word than old maid, right?) lady named Pearl White.  I am not kidding.  That really was her name.  She was also my piano teacher, but that’s another story altogether.

Miss White in her selection of books to read aloud that year was The Secret Garden by Secret GardenFrances Hodgson Burnett.  It’s difficult to explain what happened as that story was read aloud to me, but as I look back today, I know it was an epiphany.

As Miss White read that book, I could smell the rich soil in the secret garden of Misselthwaite Manor. I inhaled the fragrance of the blossoms. I watched as Mary and Dickon worked to clear the garden, to nurture each tender plant and vine, and how they brought the neglected garden back to life.

Every detail of the book sprang into vivid images. Deep within me I suddenly realized the power of words on paper.  Of course I could never have expressed my feelings at the time, but it was an unforgettable experience.

Reunited with My Old Friend

Years later browsing in a public library with my two then-in-grade-school children, I came upon a copy of The Secret Garden.  My overwhelming excitement was no doubt embarrassing to the two of them.  We checked it out and I read The Secret Garden aloud to them as Miss White had done for me all those years before.

One of those read-aloud evenings – after the two had gone to bed — I sat up and finished the book on my own.  (I just couldn’t put it down.)  As I finished the book, I sat there all alone in the quiet of my living room and wept and wept.  And wept.

Why?  I don’t know.  Not really.  (Believe me, I’m not a person who cries easily.)  All I can say is that my “friend” that had transformed me as a small child was back in my life and the emotion of that moment of being reunited was overwhelming.  And reliving the experience of the book was overwhelming as well.

Savor the Experience; Let it Transform

Some of you reading this will closely relate.  It’s not because one book is so much better than another. (It’s obvious some are.)  It’s because it so deeply and personally resonates within YOU!  It is YOUR experience.  And no one can take that away from you.  But you can savor it.  And you can allow it to work to transform you into a more sensitive and perceptive and skilled craftsman in your art of writing.

Thank you Robert Benson for helping me to articulate this powerful experience! (Learn more about Robert HERE.)

I would love to hear what book(s) have affected you in your reading experience.  Leave a Be A Novelistcomment and let me know.

I trust the teaching and instruction given in this blot post was helpful in your goal to be a novelistFor more in-depth writer’s workshops, check out the wide variety offered at the Be A Novelist Website.