Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, May 27, 2010

What Makes a Great Setting

The Reading Rainbow theme song really had it right.

One of the best parts of reading is the way in which it opens up a new world to us, whether it's set in in an unpronounceable ancient kingdom, the far reaches of outer space, ancient history, the distant future, or even the real world but maybe somewhere we've never been. It's an incredible experience to be immersed in an unfamiliar setting.

Still, I'm not sure that all aspiring authors give quite enough thought to setting. The best worlds are more than just the trees that dot the hillsides or the stars in outer space. There's more to a good setting than simply a place where the novel is set.

There are three important elements to a good setting:

Change Underway

The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on the characters' lives. Instead in the best worlds there is a plot inherent to the setting itself: a place in turmoil (Lord of the Rings), or a place that is resisting change but there are tensions roiling the calm (To Kill a Mockingbird), or the sense of an era passing in favor of a new generation (The Sound and the Fury).

Basically: something is happening in the bigger world that affects the characters' lives. Great settings are dynamic.

Personality and Values:

There is more still to a great setting than the leaves on the trees and even the change that is happening within that world: a great setting has its own value system. Certain traits are ascendant, whether it's valor and honor (Lord of the Rings), justice and order (Hondo), every man for himself (The Road) or it could even be a place where normal values and perspectives have become skewed or inverted (Catch-22).

There's a personality outlook that throws us off kilter and makes us imagine how we'd react if we were placed in that world. And it makes us wonder whether we have the makeup to thrive within it.

Unfamiliarity:

Most importantly, a great setting shows us something we've never seen before. Either it's a place that most readers might be unfamiliar with and have never traveled to (The Kite Runner), or it shows us a place that we are all-too-familiar with, but with a new, fresh perspective that makes us look again (And Then We Came to the End).


When all of these elements combine and when characters become swept up in the broader changes sweeping the world of the novel it elevates the plot by giving it a deeper and larger canvass. Even if the characters aren't saving the world or confronting the changes head-on, the best plots intersect with their settings (and vice versa) to give us a sense of a character in a world, partially able to control their surroundings, but partially subject to the whims of forces outside their control. The setting is as much a living thing as the characters themselves.

What do you think makes for a good setting? And what are some of your favorites?

Photo by Matt Frederick via a Creative commons License






106 comments:

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

You got through that whole post without mentioning Atonement? :) I'm impressed.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I like it best when I can smell and feel the setting on my skin, even though all I've done is read about it. And I like when I don't realize that I even feel those elements.

That is tough to convey, for suresies, but using non-visual wording helps.

Kristan said...

Great post. In particular, the "Change Underway" section grabbed me because I'd never thought of that. Now I'm considering how that works in one of my WIPs.

Fave examples of good settings: Harry Potter and Narnia come to mind right away. Kite Runner, as you mentioned. HUNGER GAMES!!! And, with some help from my GoodReads account: Martian Chronicles. Brave New World. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Josin L. McQuein said...

The best stories are those that handle setting as though it were a character. Places have personality and the best writers get that.

Houses without people in them degrade quicker than those lived in. You can argue that it's because there's no one to make repairs, but it's also because there's no soul to them anymore. There's no light in the windows or sound so they're blind and deaf.

Terrain isn't a backdrop and shouldn't be treated like one. It requires navigation because of rises and dips. There are snaggling brambles and tree branches that can tickle or torment.

Surfaces have texture. They reflect light or shatter it, sometimes they devour it.

Setting is such a key component to the tone of a story it bugs me when people shrug it off as though it were no more than the shoebox used to house a first grade diorama of the Cretaceous Period.

Writing isn't taking snapshots, it's orchestrating a moving picture of the grandest scale.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great post as always, Nathan. I think one of my favorite setting-rich novels is 'Troll Fell' by Katherine Langrish. It's steeped in sensory language and every scene has been written with careful thought of the emotions it brings out and the tension it creates.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

averyoslo said...

"The Grapes of Wrath" comes to mind. Hostile environments bring out the extremes in characters, and from this you get a whole pot of delicious conflict.

shawn smucker said...

I really like that thought about the setting changing along with the characters, or in contrast to them.

Remilda Graystone said...

Wow. Never really thought about it this way. I'm going to need to look at my story again with this post in mind.

My favorite setting would have to be in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series. I loved every moment I spent in that book.

Thanks for this post!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

A couple favourites:

Duncton Wood - you come to know every inch of that forest as the moles do. The leaves, the ground litter, the trees, the tunnels, the changing feel of the earth, the Stone...

Shadow Country - the setting, the Everglades in historical Florida, saturates the entire story. It shapes it and shadows it and pervades all that happens. The story and the setting are inescapably linked.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Though if I could add in a non-fiction book, I'd throw in Jonathan Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Everest: now that's a setting that shapes a story.

jjdebenedictis said...

I think a sufficiently alien world has to show readers how it's a little like home.

Just as readers care about the protagonist after we recognize a sliver of shared humanity with him/her, we care about the world of the novel only after we begin to see how it's like ours.

D. G. Hudson said...

Favorite setting: the world of Arrakis/Dune. This setting evolved and changed as the desert planet was transformed into a fertile world.

A great setting makes one feel as if they've been there. We feel the wind, the dryness or moisture in the air, or we feel the damage of a virulent sun as in the Riddick stories, or the Thomas Covenant series (sunbane).

Our senses are titillated when the setting and its description meld together.

Excellent info, Nathan. Love these Tues & Thur writing posts!

Steppe said...

A lot to consider in that posts.
A big hmmmm of attempted deep thoughts here. Setting verses action has been my main concern as I start a second revision draft of a book-3 and a prologue to book-1 to add a coherent prologue suggesting the core inner struggle between a group of five characters who have united as small group in a time-mafia conspiracy to survive their own rather mundane lifes. Have to give that post a few looks.

Ken Hannahs said...

A setting does, I believe, two things: 1. It is the bit of prose where poetry is most applicable. Florid description that sounds like music is mostly found in the description of scene or character. 2. Good setting is paramount for the reader to suspend disbelief -- especially important if you aren't writing realistic fiction.

To me, setting is where writers are most able to flex their literary muscles and experiment with fascinating metaphors and curious word choice. You won't get that in dialogue, nor will you get it in action. Setting scenes is the place where the author has complete freedom to do whatever she/he likes.

Favorite examples of setting, perfected:
Banville in THE UNTOUCHABLE. Incredible book. I can almost smell the stench eminating from Boy's room. I know of no other author that has described a black dress as a "beetle's carapice," and meant it as a compliment.

Atwood's HANDMAID'S TALE. This is the first thing I thought of when Nathan mentioned "personality and virtues." Atwood weaves a haunting tale in this dystopian world, and the worst part is, we can SEE IT. I think in another dark world is Phillip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA.

Krakauer's INTO THIN AIR. When people say that they couldn't stop reading because it felt like they were abandoning the climbers on Everest, your settings are spot-on.

Poe's "The Raven". Poetry, yes, but incredible and vivid scenery. There isn't much, but what is there is so vivid that I like to imagine it as some of the best. Similarly, also check out some of the short stories like "The Cask of Amantillado" for some good ol' fashioned grotesquery!

Rowling. I mean, let's be honest, she does it so well.

Anyway, there's tons more, but these were the ones that came immediately to mind.

Ted Cross said...

People get tired of hearing Tolkien's name, I suppose, but no one has done it better.

Nancy said...

Terrific post, Nathan--you always make me think--thanks...I guess! ;)

Avonlea is more a character than a place in the Anne of Green Gables books--it made me want to go to PEI. The Limberlost in Gene Stratton Porter's Freckles, Girl of the Limberlost, and The Harvester made me curious about a place in my own state--Indiana...

Josin, your comment "Writing isn't taking snapshots, it's orchestrating a moving picture of the grandest scale" is inspiring--thank you!

bcomet said...

I love this topic, Nathan, and what you wrote.

The setting must hold and touch and weave into the story and its characters. When it does, it can transport the reader with a clarity that can be magical.

I am at a turning point in a WIP where the characters move to a new setting. Before I can continue writing, I have to understand how this new setting will support the characters in their story arcs. I need to let this world open up in my imagination and show itself to me, the writer.

bcomet

Marian Allen said...

Love the picture of Mono Lake on the post!

I love settings that take me into the world of the story, whether that's 18th Century Belgium, 25th Century space or Cousin Louise's kitchen.

Some of my favorite books for setting are MOBY DICK, Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS trilogy and Mervyn Peake's GORMENGHAST trilogy. And, of course, anything by Edward Rutherfurd.

Jess said...

One of my favorite examples of a dynamic setting is found in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. The way Kidd writes about South Carolina is so beautiful that it takes me right back, yet she added the racial tension of the 1960's and created a world wholly unfamiliar and fascinating to me. The lives the characters lead are intriguing enough without that particular social element, but by putting her characters in situations where they had to confront and react to racism in all its many forms, Kidd transformed an interesting story into something that stays with you and changes the way you see your own life.

Ed Miracle said...

In China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, the city throbs and hunkers and wheezes as much, usually to greater effect, as the characters.

Julie said...

Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets boasts my favorite setting of any book: 1950's London, with dazzling parties, dramatic manors, and the indescribable allure of well-written pasts. It's not my absolute favorite book, but the way Rice makes England a separate character blows me away every time.

Emily White said...

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. That setting was its own character and it helped to change (or destroy) everyone in that book.

Verification word: hanabl

Should I be scared?

Claudie said...

Some of the best books I've read are those where setting, plot and characters are so deeply intertwined it becomes hard to distinguish one from the other.

Every place has a personality of its own, and it gives rise to unique attitudes and beliefs. I find that when you take the time to develop your setting, plots and characters emerge by themselves.

jujohnson said...

I'm not into long flowery setting descriptions. I confess I skim those paragraphs...even in great setting books like LOTR.

The book I'm reading right now is set in Venice and Instanbul and I think this writer evokes very distinct impressions of place without being heavy handed.

I think that might be because it's very character centered: description is based on their sense experiences, their impressions, their interactions in their environment. It's woven in.

I like this kind of setting approach the best...seems light and effortless..yet draws you in...

Terry Towery said...

Whatever the hell Josin said way up above -- I agree with that. ;)

Leis said...

Patrick Suskind's PERFUME-THE STORY OF A MURDERER is another example of superb use of 'setting' as character.

Outstanding post, thank you Nathan.

Caledonia Lass said...

Psshhh... my problem is too much setting sometimes. But that is a drawback to being a fantasy writer. You want to share EVERYTHING. Every aspect of the world, how it was created and so on and so forth.
And I love keeping my places in turmoil. Hehe!

Jen P said...

The River in Huck Finn.
Plainsong by Haruf.
Blackbird House or The Glass House by Alice Hoffman.
Tom Clancy - I've never been in a submarine, but I feel like I have.

And now I consider it, I think this is the one element I did not take to in The Time Traveller's Wife - because it kept shifting.

Your post (plus Josin's comments) make me realise how important setting is to me but I've never appreciated it. I have butterflies. Having this enlightenment is an 'aha moment' and will add to my WIP no end. Thank you.

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree. Settings can make a story extra delicious and intriguing. Some of my favorite settings that add significantly to the story are those in: THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver, the world of the pink house in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd, ENCOUNTER WITH TIBER by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes, the game rooms in the ENDER series by Orson Scott Card, most of John Steinbeck’s novels, so many more.

I belong to several amazing writing groups. One is a unique type of Travel Literature writing group, run by William Reese Hamilton, in which the goal is to develop the setting as an important and integral part of the story, as Hemingway and others used to do. William Reese Hamilton has been published in major literary journals, and his writing is exquisite. He knows how to develop a setting with incredibly descriptive language that adds significantly to the story. Here’s a sample of his writing, a short piece published in the SmokeLong Quarterly: CROSSING THE ORINOCO by William Reese Hamilton

Krista V. said...

Donald Maass has a good chapter about setting in his latest, THE FIRE IN FICTION. It has some great pointers - I highly recommend it.

As for settings I enjoy, there's nothing quite like a richly layered fantasy world for me. I happen to be reading Janice Hardy's THE SHIFTER right now, and it has a fantastic Istanbul-esque setting (at least, I find it Istanbul-esque).

I also love it when writers take us to the most important places in a story, when they trade in the generic locales for the super-charged ones. Why have that scene in the hallway when you could have it in the third-floor bathroom that everybody knows is Johnny Daring's secret lair? Why settle for an alley when there's a sewer - that's directly under the Library of Congress, no less - three blocks away?

Marilyn Peake said...

Josin,

I love novels in which the setting is so major, it becomes a character. In HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski, the house was in many ways the main character. I found that novel rather awesome to read.

Jordan said...

Mono Lake, eh? I thought that looked like the locale from the Sasquatch documentary I saw last night.

Like jujohnson, I actually don't care for a lot of setting. When a setting is dynamic and involved in the plot, that's great, but when a writer is trying waaaay to hard to make it a character (or just too much in love with the world s/he's created), I skim or stop reading. I just did this the other day—the setting was actually the only "character" that even merited much interest by page 50.

But, then, setting is the bane of my existence as a writer. No matter how much I try to put in, my readers/CPs seem to want more.

Thermocline said...

Every book within Terry Pratchett's Discworld series has a slew of interesting settings that force themselves upon the characters. Part of Pratchett's magic is being able to create all these places that feel familiar and strange at the same time.

J. Koyanagi said...

I'm going to second China Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION and add Jeff VanderMeer's VENISS UNDERGROUND. Oh, and George Orwell's 1984.

V Man said...

I like your blog.

Elie said...

I love the miniature world of The Borrowers, and the way the characters interact with the larger human world. The change of scale is compelling.

abc said...

Joshua Ferris does a great job of making the setting (an office space) a character in Then We Came to End. The halls, the cubicles, the bookshelves, THE CHAIRS. I can't think of a better example of the setting being so instrumental to the story.

treeoflife said...

They've been said already, but I'll second "Into Thin Air" and "Dune".

I'll add "Pillars of the Earth"... you could really understand the world they lived in.

Laurel said...

You broke my brain a little bit citing LOTR, TKAM, and TSATF all in one sentence. The trifecta!

The Hobbit has one of the most pronounced examples of this, IMHO. Mirkwood Forest is a character as much as a setting.

Samuel said...

To ask a stupid question: what is the 'setting'? Do we mean the milieu or community i.e. the peopled world surrounding the characters?

If so, then I think one of the reasons I love post-war South African literature is because the writers are fortunate - fortunate! - to be living through such interesting times.

The Pollinatrix said...

In my WIP, the setting more or less plays the part of a character, so I've thought a lot about this. I really like the way you've laid it out here.

The literary settings that have done it best for me as a reader are Pern, Oz, Green Gables and surrounding area, Pi's boat, and Abarat.

Eric said...

The Great Gatsby

The opulence of West Egg / East Egg set against the slums of the valley of ashes that borders. The green light across the bay, haunting Gatsby from Daisy's dock. The massive eyes of the Doctor Eckleberg, watching overall like God.

The opening of Chapter Three, describing Gatsby's parties...just wonderful.

Marsha Sigman said...

My fav has to be LOTR. Who can top that as a setting that you would actually want to live in? Where honor is currency and your best friend an elf.

I would move to Middle Earth if I could.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I particularly like the idea of the setting having a sense of change, movement towards some altered state. It is THIS now, but it used to be THAT, and it's on its way to THIS future. A sense of history as motion. Nice.

Mira said...

Great post and great picture. Very well said.

Can't argue LOTR, but Harry Potter books do this as well. The Wizarding world is real. Hogwarts exists. :)

Terry Stonecrop said...

Jane Smiley's, The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and Kurt Vonnegut's, Galapagos come to mind.

A great post! Lots to think about. Thanks.

Jil said...

Nostalgia can also be a setting's attraction. A lake similar to where you once spent summers, a mountain you climbed or a country you visited-a city in a different time or a college. Sometimes the setting is the main reason I pick up a book. A boring, or personally depressing one, can cause me to put a book down no matter how good the story may be.
When I begin to write a new novel, the setting is the first thing I think about as that is where I will be spending the next few year.s

Livia said...

A lot of good science fiction have great settings. Dune, Orson Scott Card's novels (Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Pastwatch), etc...

Although I do have a theory that great "setting-driven" books have a higher risk of not-so-great sequels. I've seen this several times in science fiction, where the first book is an amazing story in a fascinating world. But once you get to the sequel, we've seen the world already and the characters and plot arc aren't enough to carry the second volume (or they just get plain weird).

heather said...

I, like so many others, have never really looked at the setting in such a detailed fashion. Of course I know how important it is and the kind of role it can play - or fail to play - in a story, but man, Nathan, wow! That's a whole lotta 'I never even thought about that before' info.

So here is my question. My wip isn't set in a fantasy land, or some strange new world. It's pretty much set in the world we live in. There will be a few things going on beneath the surface of this plain old Earth-as-we-know-it in my story, but nothing like you talked about. Have I done something horribly wrong? Do I need to rethink my entire environment and make it less normal?

heather said...

Oh, and I really love the settings for R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms books, specifically the tales of Drizzt Do'Urden. I might be the only one to think this, but man! That guy can paint a picture and tell a story.

Jill said...

All kissing up aside, I'm really enjoying experiencing China in Rock Paper Tiger. I've never been to Beijing before, but there's just enough detail in the book to give me a sense that I'm there.

Kate said...

I loved my 'Sense of Place' class in college, one of my faves.

James does some great things with setting. His New York and Europe control the stories. Also Janet Fitch's L.A., Willa Cather's New Mexico, Harris's Louisiana (I can feel the humidity), Twain's south, McCarthy's west Texas, there are so many I love.

Mary McDonald said...

Much of my book takes place in Chicago. In fact, I just blogged about it today because I was on a field trip with my daughter's class today. We took a river/lake boat tour of the city. I hadn't done that before.

My book opening has only a short scene in the city, before the MC is dragged away to prison, but when he gets out, I focus more on Chicago. (I do have setting in the early part too, but it's not Chicago, that's for sure.)

I really incorporate the city at the end. In fact, the finale takes place at Wrigley Field.

Amanda Sablan said...

My favorite book setting is and will always be Japan. The culture is just so weird and interesting, there's something new to learn each and every time I read about in fiction.

The Red Angel said...

A great setting has certain characteristics that can be used to distinguish that particular setting from all others.

You chose some really good books for examples. The Kite Runner is phenomenal.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

cheekychook said...

The Last Convertible by Anton Myrer

I read that book when I was 14 years old and twenty-some years later it's still one of my favorites. It transports you back in time to the 1940's---from the dormitories at Harvard, to the beaches of Cape Cod, to opulent New England night clubs to the war-torn cities throughout Europe you literally see it all.

For more recently written works I'd have to say the Harry Potter series definitely creates a dramatic visual experience for its readers.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Awesome post, and one I needed to read.

Donna Hole said...

I like fantasy settings for exactly the reason most people don't: the sweeping descriptions of the landscape, the colors and textures of the trees and ground, the scents, the feel of the breeze on faces.

I like it when a writer makes the setting as much a character and denizens that inhabit world.

The trend in contemporary writing is to ignore descriptions of place and people, considering it irrelevant to the plot. It may be true that most readers skip over descriptions, but not me.

I like stopping to smell the roses - or whatever else is in the setting.

.........dhole

Kristin Laughtin said...

You make a really good point that it's important to have something in the larger setting changing in a way that affects the characters' lives, even for books that don't (seem to) have the big, sweeping drama of LOTR (THE SOUND AND THE FURY being a very good example. I don't think people pay enough attention to the setting, other than to note it as "interesting" and "characteristic of the time"). The best settings are almost characters unto themselves. (A lot of people have been commenting on the Island from Lost this week for that reason!) My favorite settings are in the caves and valleys of Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, starting with THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. Auel does a very good job using the setting to elaborate on the culture and practices of various prehistoric peoples, and of making familiar an unfamiliar part of our own world.

Melissa Pearl said...

Thanks for the great post, Nathan.
The Mark of the Lion trilogy has one of the richest settings I've ever encountered in my reading. The author totally draws you into the world of 70AD Rome and then over to Germania. The setting provided such rich conflict for the story to be built upon.
I have never found myself so engrossed in another place and time. The real world did not exist when I was reading those novels.

Grapeshot/Odette said...

I thought I had great settings with East Germany the year after the wall came down, and Burning Man, but the novels,alas,haven't sold. YET.

I love books to take me to places I can't go, like Havana or Afghanistan, or places I would like to visit--Buenos Aires or Scandinavia. One of the great things about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the interesting setting. Sweden! Who knew? Mark Twain took us down the Mississippi. Lawrence Durrell made us Alexandrians. Setting can be a major character.

Nicole L Rivera said...

I give the best setting to J.K. Rowling's world of Harry Potter. She transports the reader into a whole new world that through her descriptions is incredibly real. I could see Diagon Ally, smell the butter beer, and feel the wind whip my face as Harry raced around on his Nibus 2000.

Anonymous said...

All of Richelle Mead's series do this so well and it's because of that, her books stand above the rest.

An example would be in the VAMPIRE ACADEMY series. The values and beliefs of the world she has created are made so real that when the protagonist goes against them it is a legitimate shock. So much so that the cliff hanger ending became secondary.

sharonedge said...

Read The Higher Power of Lucky for an example of setting as character. It is one of those books that made you want to be part of the community, in this case, a Death Valley community.

ryan field said...

I fell in love with Baltimore, MD thanks to Anne Tyler.

Great Post!!

T. Anne said...

Setting is always one of my favorite characters! It adds that extra dimension to my stories and I give it as much attention as I can.

M. Rose said...

Great post, as always. It makes me reconsider jumping into my new WIP without developing the setting a bit more.

To throw some out that I didn't spot earlier:
I love Anne McCaffery's Pern. Even years after reading the novels last I can still imagine most of the setting.

Also I love the setting of the young adult Uglies, although I found that the storyline fell a bit flat.

KK said...

Some great books have been cited in the comments for fabulous settings. I feel, however, that Lewis did much more than Narnia, so if you're going to lump him in with the other great fantasy writers, you need to include his sci-fi trilogy and "Til We Have Faces", his greek mythology. He was the greatest writer that ever lived, in my opinion, and if I ever manage to attain one fourth of his talent, I will die happy.

Let's not also forget McCaffrey's dragonriders, or the painfully slow rituals required to be performed by geishas in Japan's underbelly.

Whether real or not, descriptions bring you into the world of the characters, and are thus important.

Becca said...

I like settings that mean something. But sometimes, I just don't care. Sometimes I just want the vaguest description possible. They're in the hallway at school. You don't have to explain the layout of the school. Or, you know something like that. Only if it has a big part in the plot do I think the setting needs a lot of emphasis.

Christina said...

I absolutely LOVE settings. I love different settings. I love it when a writer can describe a setting in such a way that even if it is normal it feels special because he/she's descriptions were so good.

Tambra said...

Since I read what I write, it would be paranormal: historical, futuristic, urban fantasy/contemporary.

The books that come to mind are:
Kerrelyn Sparks Love at Stake Series
Angela Knight's Time Warriors series
Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter world
Deidre Knight's Gods of Midnight series.

Each of these authors transport you to their world and make you a part of it.

Thanks for another great post, Nathan.

Best,
Tambra Kendall
www.tambrakendall.com

pam owldreamer said...

My second manuscript is set in a small town in a remote area o Alaska. The only way in is by plane.The town is changing with the addition of satellite internet and new enterprise "tourist trade" due to a renewed interest in all things Alaskan. Not all the changes are good of course. Even global warming is changing the area. The setting offers,killer storms,treacherous,beautiful scenery and the pioneer spirit of the Alaskan people. I know,I live in Alaska and spent the last two years living in "The Bush".I know,what it is to have bears in the yard,eagle watch when you let the cat outside,driving a car over and iced river and roads. And the heart stopping feeling of driving in a whiteout and the danger of a moose cow with a new baby.I love to describe scenery in my manuscripts. I write what I know. I grew up on a working farm in Louisiana.I rode horses,worked the cattle,picked cotton,fed the livestock,helped bale cotton and walked the streets of New Orleans on our family trips to New Orleans four times a year. I lived through three terrible hurricanes on the gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas.I've lived without electricity for three to four weeks. I rode horses in a local square dance group where we preformed in rodeos where one horse and rider died in a collision performing figure eights at breakneck speed.These places make great settings,not just because they are great settings,but because I know them.The Mississipp river delta and the swamps of Louisiana as well as remote sections of Alaska are my favorite settings. read Nora Roberts"Northern Lights" or "Midnight Bayou" to name two books with my fav sensory settings.Michael McDowell's "Blackwater"series. Other settings and fav books are too numerous to mention.

want my reader to BE THERE when they read my novels,but not to overshadow the story and characters

Virginia McGarity said...

Florida in any John D. MacDonald or Carl Hiaasen novel.

pam owldreamer said...

My second manuscript is set in a small town in a remote area o Alaska. The only way in is by plane.The town is changing with the addition of satellite internet and new enterprise "tourist trade" due to a renewed interest in all things Alaskan. Not all the changes are good of course. Even global warming is changing the area. The setting offers,killer storms,treacherous,beautiful scenery and the pioneer spirit of the Alaskan people. I know,I live in Alaska and spent the last two years living in "The Bush".I know,what it is to have bears in the yard,eagle watch when you let the cat outside,driving a car over and iced river and roads. And the heart stopping feeling of driving in a whiteout and the danger of a moose cow with a new baby.I love to describe scenery in my manuscripts. I write what I know. I grew up on a working farm in Louisiana.I rode horses,worked the cattle,picked cotton,fed the livestock,helped bale cotton and walked the streets of New Orleans on our family trips to New Orleans four times a year. I lived through three terrible hurricanes on the gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas.I've lived without electricity for three to four weeks. I rode horses in a local square dance group where we preformed in rodeos where one horse and rider died in a collision performing figure eights at breakneck speed.These places make great settings,not just because they are great settings,but because I know them.The Mississipp river delta and the swamps of Louisiana as well as remote sections of Alaska are my favorite settings. read Nora Roberts"Northern Lights" or "Midnight Bayou" to name two books with my fav sensory settings.Michael McDowell's "Blackwater"series. Other settings and fav books are too numerous to mention.

want my reader to BE THERE when they read my novels,but not to overshadow the story and characters

RLS said...

After reading Alice Siebold's The Lovely Bones, anytmie heaven came up, I felt like, Yeah, I've been there.

And NYC circa 1970 in the book, When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) was like 'watching a movie' vivid.

Tambra said...

I forgot one more great writer who I forgot to mention. (shame on me.)
Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.
He makes you believe that the worlds of the White Council, Red Court, White Court do cross into our world.

As Josin said earlier, setting isn't something tossed in. It plays an important role along with the other elements that are needed to create a novel that stays and lingers with the reader.

Best,
Tambra

Sommer Leigh said...

A story with an amazing setting is a story you cannot imagine unfolding in any other place, time, atmosphere, or sensibility. The setting and the story go hand in hand together, neither overshadowing the other.

I think of Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road as an example of setting that is so tightly woven into the story that it simply could not have been set any place else. And by the end as much as I do not want to leave the characters behind, I do not want to leave Jellicoe Road, either.

Krista V. said...

@heather: I don't think your setting has to be fantastical to still be a living, breathing part of the story.

I mentioned Donald Maass's latest book, and here's my attempt at massacring - er, summarizing - one of his examples. He talked about a book (and of course, I can't remember which one) set in Socal. The main character goes there at the beginning of the book, during the spring, when she's feeling hopeful. She notices all the good things about the place: the sparkle of the surf, the warm sea breeze, the cheerful sunshine.

Later, though, when she returns to southern California after going through some conflict, it's fall. The flip-flops don't look carefree anymore, just careless. It's cloudy most days, and the ocean doesn't sparkle - it broods.

So the setting reflects the character's mood, because it's seeing the setting THROUGH THE CHARACTER'S EYES that's important. If you filter the setting - and everything, in fact - then it can't help but become a vital part of the story.

Jan Markley said...

In my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch the setting is any town north america but is really a compilation of where I grew up, where I live now and parts of other cities. I think the real setting is a time when children had the freedom to ride their bikes around the neighbourhood and explore their surroundings.

bethhull.com said...

Recognized the Mono Lake photo right off! I was there a couple years ago and took a (far less cool) picture from the same spot.
A book whose setting made an impact with me is Beautiful Creatures (by Garcia and Stohl).

swampfox said...

Any setting that offers the unexpected. It can be outer space, another dimension, or an any American inner city.

Laurel said...

Totally forgot about these two:

The Citadel and to a lesser extent Charleston in Pat Conroy's Lords of Discipline and Eatonville in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It's nearly impossible to picture either of those stories in a different setting. The place informed and influenced the characters.

February Grace said...

Mr. Bransford said: "There's a personality outlook that throws us off kilter and makes us imagine how we'd react if we were placed in that world. And it makes us wonder whether we have the makeup to thrive within it."

That is fantastic.

I think the mark of a really great literary world is this: not only can we (and if they writer is really good, must we) imagine ourselves there but we don't really leave it when we are finished with the story.

We take it home with us, we dream about it. In those instances where it becomes so dear that we can return to it with a single thought and feel the tension or the beauty or the wonder there then it's truly a gift from the writer to us.

The best of those worlds can surprise you by popping into your head at the oddest times. I, for one, processed this yesterday as returning in my head to that galaxy far far away and comparing a medical test I was having to Han Solo's spa experience on Bespin...I could almost smell the Ugnaughts!

Characters can make you love a book but I think it's truly great atmosphere that pulls you in and makes you live it.

Thank you for this post- I'll be thinking of it as I revise.

wendy said...

I think the setting should always reflect the character's mood, and as the MC's mood changes, so should the nature of the setting. I like settings that tempt me to enter with their mystery and beauty. I like fragrant natural settings, but also grand, gothic buildings with many rooms to explore where exotic treasures and the unexpected are lurking. I read a book a long time ago about a huge castle-city that grew and changed as if a character in the story. This sprawling structure dominated the story and the title and evoked a powerful sense of place. Was it Gormanghast?

I concur with what Josin has said, too.

Charlee Vale said...

I really love it when the entire world, (Characters, language, slang, locations, everything) sucks you in and won't leave your mind. I just recently read a six book series that was so vivid I actually caught myself using terms from the book in real life. Crazy huh?

CV

Dara said...

I love settings too! I think that's why most of what I write tends to take place in a world and time far removed from my own.

I definitely agree with the plot being inherent to the setting--that's why the current WiP I'm working on takes place during a time of transition in Japanese history--the era when East and West met and the issues and conflicts arising from two different cultural ways of life.

Loree H said...

Favorite setting in a book: Cold Moutain. I could hear my own feet on the cobblestones.

Katy said...

This isn't of substance, but I love how you weave examples of books into these posts. I would never have thought of And Then We Came To The End as a book with a strong setting, but you're right that in a lot of ways, it was.

Bane of Anubis said...

Great post, NB.

Fantastical/Sci-Fiish settings (e.g., HP, THG)are easier to do, IMO (though by no means easy). That's why I'll second Duncton Wood b/c it took an ordinary-ish, everyday setting and made it fantastically alive.

PS - What happened to Snoopy?

Clarity said...

This is really, really good. I might just email myself that, makes one think.

By the way your fantastic advice re. non-fiction proposals really helped - I had to cut relationship with the big agent short as the percentage they wanted was above and beyond. Sad, and not pleasing. Considering going to the publisher direct which is probably a big nono.

Robert A Meacham said...

Arioch looked up toward the azure sky. His eyes followed a wind-driven cloud. “We will see light thrice and darkness two times and see them as they come into each other.”
The skies began to burn, faintly at first, like sunbeams playing in the waters of a blue sea. And then a soft crimson glow tinged the sky. A blush began to fall on the cheek of darkness in colors of crimson and gold. Candida looked to the zenith, east and west, and like the flames from a fiery sword, sunset cast its broad band across the heavens. The red fiery glow burned along the horizon until it faded away.
Soft purple clouds sailed over the sky, and through their vapory folds, winking stars shined white as silver.

Bonnie said...

Do you have to like the setting for it to be effective? I would hate to live where Stephanie Plum in the Evanovich series lives. Sounds like a dreadful place.
Would like to live in Laura Joh Rowland's world, though.

Nick Kimbro said...

Great post. Sounds like common sense, although it's the kind that is all too easy to forget. This has been helpful.

Susan said...

I read M.T. Anderson's "Feed" recently and that setting is stuck in my head. Especially the park where lovers stroll through acres of raw sirloin. I'm currently reading the first of his "Octavian Nothing" books. It starts with: "I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees."

Peter Dudley said...

Agreed on all points. My three examples would be POISONWOOD BIBLE, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, and ANGLE OF REPOSE. It's been years and years and years since I read any of them, but I can't think of the stories or the characters without also seeing vivid moments of the setting.

Anonymous said...

C. Sansom's Shardlake mysteries really put one in Tudor England, and not a prettified Tudor England, either.

Of course Middle Earth, but the book is as much about the setting as it is about the quest.

Corelli's Mandolin.

Julie said...

A thought on setting & e-books:

When my husband read Dan Brown's The Symbol on e-book, he kept looking up the various locales on the web...he said 'I wish this e-book came with direct hyperlinks to the web'. He found the pictures really enriched his enjoyment of the novel/setting.

I can easily foresee this happening some day! Is it possible e-books will transform our idea of setting? Will novels become more like multi- media events? ('Here's the soundtrack to my novel')

Just a thought.

Susan J. Berger said...

I loved L.M. Montgomery's settings/ I also agree about Robert Heinlein's Moon is A Harsh Mistress. I need to work on setting in my mid grade book. Fortunately I have Lupe Fernandez in my critiques group. He is a master of description and through his critiques, my setting are getting better. Namaste

Susan J. Berger said...

I loved L.M. Montgomery's settings/ I also agree about Robert Heinlein's Moon is A Harsh Mistress. I need to work on setting in my mid grade book. Fortunately I have Lupe Fernandez in my critiques group. He is a master of description and through his critiques, my setting are getting better. Namaste

Ee Leen Lee said...

A striking setting becomes a great asset- like the Yorkshire moors in 'Wuthering Heights' or the desert planet Arrakis in 'Dune'. Another element that enhances the narrative

Mark Anthony said...

At the risk of getting lost in a sea of comments, well said. Like all devices in writing, if the reason for its application is more than superficial, settings will almost always engage the reader.

Jen C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen C said...

A recent book that I think does setting really, really well is All the Living by C.E. Morgan. I was THERE for the entire book.

David Jace said...

Wonderful post! Thank you.

http://davidjace.blogspot.com/2010/12/setting-up-for-giant-leap.html

abc said...

House of Leaves!

Shaunda said...

5Great post! Setting does go hand in hand with great literture.
Some authors have said setting itself can be its own character, but I like how you give it personal attritubes of possessing inherent change and values. Well said.

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