Thursday, March 25

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, March 25, 2010 18 comments
Not long ago I had a nice IM chat with a friend my husband and I visited in England in 2006, when I was in the early stages of drafting Bring to Light. It got me thinking about how discovering a captivating setting can open possibilities for plot, theme and characterization.

In early outlines of my novel, I'd intended to include a one-chapter foray to southwest England, where I'd actually lived with a family when I was in college. But this particular vacation morphed into a major research trip that radically changed my vision for my novel.

The nature of the trip first changed when we entered King's Cross station, the railroad gateway to the north--a hub for rail service to northern England and Scotland. Despite the Harry Potter connection, it's not an elegant station like Victoria or sleek and hip like Charing Cross. This communicated a lot about internal stereotypes among Britons, namely that north England is considered the sticks, and its inhabitants, country hicks. Suddenly a resonant back story on my protagonist's British father began to unfold: Country boy leaves home and culture to seek his fortune abroad, where he'd meet fewer prejudices about his upbringing. (Most Americans can't tell a Cockney or Geordie accent from a posh Oxbridge, or don't have enough context to be prejudiced against less desirable regional dialects.)

Durham itself was the second great discovery, a rare jewel few tourists ever see. The city is perched on cliffs on a peninsula formed by the rivers Tyne and Wear, with a stunning 900-year-old cathedral its crowning beauty. At the cathedral and elsewhere in the region, we saw evidence of Christianity's long history sunk deep into this land--back to Roman times. The ancient past of the Vikings, the Saxons, the Romans seems nearer here than in the south, where generations have built over the past time and again. This got me thinking about the decision every generation must make: will we examine and learn from the past, or bury it?

Our friends, American transplants to England, patiently answered my thousand and one questions. Unlike natives, they were able to see the jarring differences between the "two cultures divided by a shared language" that my American-born protagonist would also notice. I soon saw how cultural differences--especially American versus British ideas about privacy and emoting--could have interesting consequences within a family dynamic.

What role does setting play in your work? Has your work ever changed significantly after discovering an exciting setting?

*This is yet another lazy re-post from my early blogging days. It's a busy week. :-)


  1. Yes yes yes yes! When I started the Shadow Scribe oh so many years ago, it was set in Boston, a place I'd been and liked but didn't know much about. But it was only when I first lived in my husband's family home, a big old stone house in the Scottish countryside, that the real setting of The Shadow Scribe became clear. There is no way it would be the story it is without that setting.

  2. Wow. Could that picture possibly be any more beautiful? A setting like that would definitely get my creativity pumping! :-)

  3. Ha! Only yesterday (or was it the day before) there was a really good post on setting at Writers Unboxed. Great minds? Or great sceneries?

    Setting isn't my strong suit, but I have taking steps to pay more attention to it. Bottom line: I've read too many passages of meandering descriptions on setting in the past and now worry I would put my readers to sleep the same way.

    My novel is set in a different country and I've had to learn how to observe, how to pare down, and how to link setting to the other elements of the story.

  4. What a gorgeous picture. Good settings have personalities of thier own and can be characters. Certainly they make a story more "feelable." Wuthering Hights set in a proper English country side with proper English gardens probably would not have worked.

  5. In both my longer works, the setting is vital. It's almost a character, or at least a characteristic, in itself. It makes me aware of limitations that setting offers, and what it adds to the story and the lives of the characters.

  6. Lovely photo! Thanks for sharing this happy rerun. It's the first time I've read it:)

  7. Wow. That picture is gorgeous.

    I've been told that setting is a character in my writing, but a lot of times I think that I could take my characters and tell their story in any number of settings.

    Obviously I am seriously confused. And yes, it has been a crazy, brutal week.

  8. I posted about setting today too! (Great minds think alike :))

    Setting is ultra important to any story. It's the stage on which the actors play. I love drawing symbolism out of the setting to mirror or contrast the character's predicament.

    I've decided to begin crafting a story for a new project that includes the country of France. I'll be spending three weeks there this summer. We're staying at my in-laws' house, but we have tentative plans to travel to Provence and show the kids the towns where they were born. How can I pass up a chance like that for grassroots book research, right??

    Europe is magical. Thanks for sharing the pic, too!

  9. I've always thought my settings were characters and treat them accordingly. Maybe not with a paragraph description, more like a sprinkling through the ms. to keep the reader in place.

  10. Setting sure can be a character, has its own vibe and personality, along with regional culture and dynamics. Sometimes it is less vital, less characteristic to the story. I enjoy the transport and immersion into an interesting setting.

    Great (re)post!

  11. I don't pay as much attention to settings as I should. I've got several scenes where it's important, but I sometimes have to go back in and add details :)

  12. I've noticed that settings make a huge difference, it gives me a ton of inspriation. I have an abandoned building covered by trees everywhere its intriguing and for months I stared at it until a story came, it has since then evolved but the beginning story came from the abandoned building!

  13. I made up my own setting. ;)

    For the most part, the setting is just that, a place where the scene takes place. But there are a few places in my novel where it was used to reveal characterization at a deeper level than would have been achieved otherwise.

  14. Jenna: when a setting really resonates, it changes everything, doesn't it?

    Shannon: I didn't take this pic, but have a lot like it--just not from this angle. Some of my fave pic books are by Ruth Brown and feature lovely English settings.

    Yat-Yee: I think linking to other story elements is key. I also skim static descriptions when reading. I try to include a lot of character voice when describing any setting--so that you learn about my MC's attitudes and associations as much as about where she is.

    Bish: Absolutely setting can be key for making themes tangible.

  15. Mary: True, setting does create parameters and boundaries. My New Yorker MC bumps up against them a lot in her father's rural English village, which creates some wonderful tensions and adds drama.

    Karen: Glad you enjoyed it. Have a great weekend.

    Sarahjayne: sorry for the brutal week. :-/
    Sure, you could move characters to another setting, but it would likely change the story in small and large ways.

    Nicole: I'll have to check out your post. I agree completely about the symbolic/themeatic aspect. I've also been surprised how plot elements suggest themselves in an intriguing setting. Have a fabulous time researching in France!

    Anne: Use of setting can be subtle, but it does give a story depth and verisimilitude.

  16. Lola: I so agree. I'm not a huge description writer (prefer dialogue), but investing more in developing and using setting has added wonderful depth, I'm finding.

    Jemi: Perhaps you haven't found the right setting yet. When you do, it will grab you by the throat and demand attention.

    Jen: Yes! And intriguing place can be a powerful story prompt.

    Stina: World building means setting is in your hands to shape with your narrative arc. My main setting is a riff on reality--an invented village near Durham.

  17. Durham is a great place! Beautiful photo.

    Setting isn't really all that important for me. I think my stories could really take place anywhere in the English-speaking world. It's more about the story.

    Have a great weekend!

  18. Talli: Whew, I was a little worried you'd call me on the anti-North prejudice in Britain. I'm not just imagining it, am I?

    Maybe it's the postmodernist in me, but where you come from does color your choice of what story elements to include and types of themes you grapple with, so I'd argue setting does always play a role, even if it isn't a conscious decision.