So often when trying to figure out what to do writing-wise, I rely upon what I like to read—what pulls me into a novel, and then what keeps me reading. Character and Setting are always my first thoughts. Of course, plot is important. However, I might have in my hand the most intriguing story every written, but if I don’t like the protagonist, or at a minimum, care about what happens to him or her—and most importantly, if I’m not mentally or emotionally “taken away” to where they are in the world—I won’t read the book. Which leads me to “setting,” sometimes referred to as “location.” Though, in my mind the word location is limited to “the place,” while setting encompasses more in my mind. It is the metaphorical envelope for a story.
By my way of thinking, setting done well is a key ingredient—I go as far to say, an essential ingredient—for an enjoyable story. A story a reader wants to read. A book a reader is pulled into. And as a writer, a novel I can feel comfortable putting my name on.
Here’s a quickie list of some of my thoughts about setting from the perspective of a reader and writer:
- Fully developed, setting adds the underlying layer for a story—the glue so to speak, that holds everything together. (Maybe not the best metaphor, but similar to the background in a photo.) It establishes the protagonist for a reader firmly on the time-space-continuum, in a particular place in the universe.
- Where a protagonist “is,” determines in a multitude of ways, what and how the characters face and deal with the dilemmas life throws their way—such as what physical items and constraints are available, not only in daily life, but also on hand to maybe save a life? Or solve a crime?
- The comparison between a protagonist’s current setting versus ones from the past can add an emotional level—e.g., guilt from deeds in a past setting, hope for a future different from where they are now, used to interpret their present world.
- Setting descriptions can also enable a reader to experience through a character’s eyes, the tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feel of their world. And at its best, provides an emotional and visual picture a reader can’t forget. (I have several such pictures from books I’ve read that I will never forget.)
- Indeed, setting is a key way to show personalities--how they deal with their environment. If your character can see, feel, love or hate a desert, a lake, a city, or???—that response to the landscape can be a key to a reader loving or hating them. And not just your hero, but your villain, too.
On a personal level, setting has often also been my story inspiration. Whether walking through a lush green evergreen forest in the pacific northwest, or mesmerized by the sight of long abandoned structures, silhouettes against lower Sierra foothills by a brilliant sunset, or mentally captivated by a rundown mini-mart, neglected and lonely in the Mojave desert, or standing in awe, taking in the expansive view from a Michigan Avenue high-rise apartment of Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. Add a few more setting items like abandoned A-frames, Quonset huts, mining caves—the list goes on; all with tales to tell, stories fanciful or real. Setting is the key to that inspiration.
The authors I consistently read with anticipation and joy are the ones that have memorable characters that take me to a place--setting--I don’t want to leave. A place where I’m sorry I have to leave at book’s end. Developing “setting,” I think is well worth the time and effort. Challenging, I think; but aiming for a strong sense of place, I also think, is a key ingredient to the “art and craft” of storytelling.
My latest two books take place in Shiné, a fictional town in the setting of California’s Mojave Desert. In my Rhodes books, I’ve certainly tried to “take the reader there.”
Author Page on Amazon link: https://tinyurl.com/yaysqwl9
Madeline (M.M.) Gornell’s mystery novels include—PSWA awarding winners Uncle Si’s Secret and Lies of Convenience (also a Hollywood Book Festival honorable Mention), Death of a Perfect Man, and Reticence of Ravens (a finalist for the Eric Hoffer 2011 fiction Prize, the da Vinci Eye for cover art, and the Montaigne Medal for most thought provoking book). Counsel of Ravens (a London Book Festival Honorary Mention and LA Book Festival Runner-Up) is her first sequel, and was a continuation of Hubert Champion’s Mojave saga. Rhodes — The Movie-Maker is her second sequel, and the continuation of Leiv Rhodes’s Mojave saga.
She continues to be inspired by historic Route 66, and this her second Rhodes novel, reflects that continuing fascination. Madeline lives with her husband and assorted canines in the Mojave High Desert near the internationally revered Route 66.
Rhodes The Movie-Maker synopsis:
From the cover synopsis of Madeline's latest book, "...one such flood of human events plays out in The Movie-Maker. This tale is not a murder mystery, though there are in fact several murders—but there is little-to-no mystery surrounding who the perpetrators are. Neither is this tale meant to be a literary treatise addressing age-old philosophical questions or current day conundrums. This tale’s primary goal is fun and escapism. Nor is The Movie-Maker a police procedural, though happenings do occur that require police activities. Nor is this tale an action drama even though dramatic actions do unfold. A romance? Not exactly, though several love stories—past and present—flavor happenings and decisions. Rhodes—The Movie-Maker is simply one of many human event stories playing themselves out in the Mojave Desert along historic Route 66."