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 |

What is the Novel’s Backstory?

blue pencils shavingsOne of the weaknesses I’ve often seen in the work of beginning novel writers is a lack of time spent in creating the backstory.  They are in such a rush to get the story on paper, they fail to consider where their characters were and what they did previous in time to the story setting itself.

First of all, let’s define backstory, and then we’ll discuss why it is so very important.  And why all authors must include this vital step in plotting.

Definition of Backstory

Each of the main characters in your novel has a life, which means he or she also has a past.  They didn’t just jump into life the moment the novel begins – even though for you as the author that’s exactly what has happened.

This is true with any person in real life – their past experiences, their upbringing, their family history, their sibling relationships, their political and social attitudes – all make up the entire personality of that person.  They are who they are because of their past history.

Now apply this to your characters.  Where did they come from?  What is their family history? What circumstances has brought them to the place where they are now?  All of this makes up the backstory.

Importance of Backstory

 Anyone working on plotting a novel would do well to spend time outlining (only for the eyes of the author) the “pre-story” past going as far back in time as seems interesting or helpful.  Or you may want to write short biographies of each of your main characters in which at least some of their lives in the past have intersected.

The more you know about your character’s past, the deeper and richer your character will become.  In fact, the deeper and richer your entire novel will become.

How much of your backstory will appear in the novel?  That depends entirely on the flow and focus of the novel itself.  For some, it may appear in the form of a flashback.  Or the backstory facts may resonate in small conflicts, joy, or veiled barbs.

Be A Novelist In the second book of my Tulsa Series, Tulsa Turning, I had already established in the backstory that the main character, Clarette, came from a wealthy family whose wealth came from the silk trade.  Though the book is set in 1921, I knew from the backstory that her ancestors had sailed the dangerous seas to China to ply this trade.

Clarette is a rebel who wants nothing much to do with her family’s money.  She wants to make it on her own as a newspaper reporter.  On a return visit home (from New York to New Jersey) she is in conversation with her staid and snobbish older brother.

Because the backstory was already established in my notes, it was simple to create this scene.  Brother, Aubrey, is chiding Clarette for dropping out of the elite girls’ school chosen by their parents.


    “Miss Damerow’s is a fine school,” he told her, “where you were learning decorum and discretion, not women’s rights and Sigmund Freud.” 

            “No matter where I studied, I’d still be me.”

            “Perhaps.  But you’d be a better you.”

            “I’d be a boring pattern of my staid ancestors.”

            “Our ancestors are all people to be proud of and to emulate.”

            “Really?  Then why aren’t you sailing to China on clipper ships, bringing back the yards of silks, rather than sitting in the office making boring deals on the telephone?”

            “Not that way!” Aubert interrupted her, reaching out to pull at the steering wheel.

            By instinct she’d almost turned down the road to the sturdy old two-story where the two of them had grown up together.

            “Okay, I got it,” she retorted smacking at his interfering hands. It was difficult to remember that her parents were now at home at the impressive Vanderpool Estate a few more miles down the road.

            Their life in the old house existed when the Vanderpool business was in silks and silks alone.  Those endeavors had mushroomed into several garment factories, a new boutique on Fifth Avenue, and now the newest twist, her father’s interest in the ever-growing stock exchange.

            “Back to my question…”

            “The ability to sail a clipper ship wasn’t the type of emulating I was referring to, Clarette, and you know it.”


Creating backstory may mean checking dates and historical facts, all of which help you as the author to be more in control of your story line.

Dangers of Creating Backstory

One of the dangers of working with backstory is that it may turn out to be so much fun it will keep you from the actual writing of your novel.Be A Novelist

The second danger is that you become so enamored with the backstory that you feel you must dump it on the reader all at once, simply because you have all that information.  When that happens you’ll end up with way too much flashback – or too much heavy narrative – in the novel.

Keep in mind that this information is not a stimulus for the present novel storyline, but a foundation upon which to build.

To be a novelist, your grasp of, and your skill in, building backstory is mandatory.