When you write fiction you literally have the world at the end of your pen (or computer keyboard). You can choose to construct characters who are not like anyone you have ever met. They may not even be human. Your plot can be as complex as a journey across the universe, or as simple as afternoon tea on the riverbank. Your aim with every word you write is to take the reader to another place, to help them to escape from their everyday world for just a few minutes, or a few hours. You are giving them the chance to be somewhere else without ever leaving their comfortable armchair. That place you take them to has to be as vivid as you can make it.
Think about some of the greatest books you have read. What stands out for you in your memory? Let’s just consider some of the classics. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre Thornfield Hall is the perfect setting for the dour Mr Rochester, can’t you just see the dusty, dark corridors and imagine the fear that Jane must have felt when she heard the screams from the ‘lunatic’ Bertha Rochester who he kept in a ‘third-storey room’ which she made into a ‘wild beast’s den’.
In Oliver Twist Dickens describes the place where Fagin and his ‘boys’ live:
‘high wooden chimney-pieces…cornices…black with neglect and dust..Spiders had built their webs in the angles of the walls and ceilings…the mouldering shutters were fast closed…and the window of ‘Oliver’s observatory was nailed down, and dimmed with the rain and smoke of years’.
But as writers of fiction when we consider setting we need to do so much more than focus on a place. Yes, knowing whether your story takes place in England or Zambia, town or country, garden shed or high-rise is a part of it, but this is only the beginning. There are so many more elements to setting than location. Let’s run through some of them…
Once you have decided on the location for your story, think about the way the culture of that place may influence your characters. Are there particular local customs that could provide an interesting angle to your story? Your characters don’t have to be in an exotic location to be affected by tradition. Your setting may be an enclosed place, such a prison or care home, with its own set of rules and traditions.
There may be a particular accent related to your location that you can represent in some of the dialogue, or certain food delicacies that are renowned locally.
Do your characters have to cope with rush hour commuters, or can they enjoy comfortable isolation? Does the population of your setting vary with the seasons? A seaside town is packed with day-trippers and holidaymakers during the summer, but on a cold, wet February day it might be possible to walk along the seafront and not meet another soul.
Society and politics
What is the era for your story? Are there any political events that might influence your characters? As part of your research it might be worth checking to find out whether any life-changing laws were passed in the year you have chosen for your plot. Take, for example, the difference in UK cities before and after the Clean Air Act of 1956. What about more recent events like the UK decimalisation of 1971 – are your characters still dealing in pounds, shilling and pence?
Time and place
Think about the landmarks in your location. When were they created? When were they destroyed? By investigating a little you can really give your reader a sense of your setting at exactly the time your story is unravelling.
Geography and climate
Of course, the geography of your setting may be the first thing that comes to mind. Forests or mountains, lakes or fields. The landscape will affect your characters in all sorts of ways. Does your character enjoy cycling along the flat country lanes of Norfolk, or prefer mountain biking around North Wales.
The climate can have a significant effect on your story and your characters. Are they huddled up in winter coats during a severe winter, or basking in the heat of a summer that breaks all records? Researching weather patterns can help with scene setting, but we are writing fiction, so if you want to make your summer the hottest for twenty years then go ahead, your reader will enjoy feeling that warmth and probably won’t be diving into the internet to check the temperature records.
We all know that the weather can affect our mood. It makes sense therefore that your characters may be temporarily cheered by the first signs of spring, despite the traumas they may have just experienced. But the atmosphere of your setting is more than temperature. How might your protagonist feel when she stumbles through a dark forest at dusk? What about someone who has spent their life outside, growing up on a farm, who suddenly finds themselves in a cocktail bar heaving with sweaty people. How might he feel when he has grown up listening to birdsong and his ears are now bombarded with a head-banging disco beat?
James Frey in How to write a damn good novel II cites examples of some of the great novels that have contrasted characters with their setting to create real page turners. In Gone with the wind Scarlett O’Hara is a ‘Southern belle, born and bred to be pampered’ put into a ‘war-ravaged country where she has to grub for roots to survive’. In Jaws the sheriff, Brody, can’t swim and yet is put into a boat ‘during a hunt for a man-eating shark’.
Naturally the time of day will influence your setting; whether it is light or dark, time for breakfast, or time to settle down for a drink before bed. You can use the interaction between your character and the setting to express emotion.
Remember that your reader will have certain associations with particular times of the day or night. If your protagonist is walking out at midnight, down an unlit street your reader may feel fear and expect something bad is going to happen. But perhaps you want to suggest to your reader that there are other ways of looking at the world. This may be the moment she comes across her soulmate as he is walking home from shift work. The event is crystallised in time, a story recounted to their children and grandchildren on each wedding anniversary. Something about the way you describe that setting at that particular point in your story will lead your reader down a certain path – even if you include a few moments of surprise first.
As well as the time of day we have the seasons to consider. The short days of winter, the long days of summer – each giving rise to different pastimes, different work patterns. With the seasons come national holidays – Christmas, Easter and personal holidays, like birthdays, anniversaries. If your story involves other cultures remember that there may be other festivals to consider, such as Passover or Thanksgiving.
In Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife Kathryn reminisces about Christmases spent with her husband (who has since died). They are driving and:
‘her stomach is so full from Julia’s Christmas dinner that she has to flip the seat back to make herself more comfortable’. She describes ‘the cream-coloured sweater that she knit for him their first winter together…[that he wears].. loyally each Thanksgiving and Christmas’.
As you take your reader with you on that special journey into your story world, drill down as far as you can into the detail of your setting, for that is where you will find the gold…
Do you have favourite techniques when it comes to scene-setting? What tips can you suggest? What about your most-loved novels – how have best-selling authors accomplished the scene-setting in their stories?
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