Write Byte

Setting: The Writer’s Secret Weapon

(September 7, 1999)

For book reports I sometimes ask my fifth and sixth graders to describe the setting. This is what I get:

My book took place somewhere in the United States (I think anyhow because everybody spoke English and had normal names.) in a kind of smallish town, but not super dinky. It didn’t really say that, but I could tell, because they had a mall, but it wasn’t a two-story one and it didn’t have a food court. I looked on every single page, Mrs. Mulvany, cross my heart, and it didn’t say where it happened. I think maybe Ohio or Iowa, though. That’s my best guess. Definitely not around here, because nobody irrigated and all the people were white except this one black kid named J.T. and there weren’t any mountains. As for time, I’m pretty sure it was nowadays because like I already said about the malls.

Then I have to ask myself whether the student’s description of setting is vague because the student didn’t read the book or because the author’s setting was generic rather than specific. Quite often it’s the latter. Many books written for middle grade students have minimal setting. The author may name the town, but never tell the reader what state it’s located in. Does this strange phenomenon manifest itself in adult fiction as well? To a lesser degree, yes.

Ever read a contemporary romance like this? The author tells you you’re in Boston, but since most of the action takes place in houses, offices, and restaurants, you never really get a feel for what makes Beantown unique. The story might just as easily have taken place in Cleveland, Atlanta, or St. Louis. Or consider the rural version, the generic ranch story. Ostensibly set in Montana, there’s a ranch and a pickup, some horses, a herd of cattle, and one gorgeous hunk of a cowboy – but specific regional details are missing. The story might have happened almost anywhere west of the Mississippi.

So what’s wrong with this trend? Takes a load off the writer, doesn’t it? Why spend all those hours researching setting when you could more profitably be crafting the world’s most perfect love scene? Or better yet, researching the world’s most perfect love scene. On a Highland moor. With Adrian Paul. Because setting is a powerful tool that good writers use to advantage and superlative writers exploit for all its worth. Setting is more than a description of time and place; it can create a mood, provide motivation, and influence both the characters and the plot in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Mary Stewart describes her settings so vividly, reading one of her books is like watching a big screen adventure film. Here’s the opening from The Ivy Tree:

“I might have been alone in a painted landscape. The sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over towards the south seemed to hang without movement. Against their curded bases the fells curved and folded, blue foothills of the Pennines giving way to the misty green of pasture, where, small in the distance as hedge-parsley, trees showed in the folded valleys, symbols perhaps, of houses and farms. But in all that windless, wide landscape, I could see no sign of man’s hand, except the lines – as old as the ridge and furrow of the pasture below me – of the dry stone walls, and the arrogant stride of the great Wall which Hadrian had driven across Northumberland, nearly two thousand years ago.”

All is peaceful here. Or is it? Enter danger, Connor Winslow, an edgy black Irishman with a handsome face and dark soul. Stewart sets the stage for the ensuing drama, deliberately juxtaposing the idyllic beauty of the Northumbrian countryside and the turbulent emotion of the scene which follows, heightening the impact through contrast.

Another of my favorite Stewart books, The Moonspinners, takes place in Crete. Though I haven’t read the book in at least ten years, the /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages her descriptions evoked then are as clear in my mind as if I’d been the one who’d wandered the hills near Agios Georgios.

“I climbed a tumble of white stone where poppies grew, and came out on a small, stony alp, a level field of asphodel, all but surrounded by towering rocks. Southwards, it was open, with a dizzying view down towards the now distant sea. For the rest, I saw only the asphodel, the green of the ferns by the water, a tree or so near the cliffs, and, in the cleft of a tall rock, the spring itself, where water splashed out among the green, to lie in a quiet pool open to the sun, before pouring away through the poppies at the lip of the gorge.”

She stops, drinks, and you guessed it! Enter danger.

“Deep in the pool, deeper than my own reflection, something pale wavered among the green. A face.”

This is classic Stewart, first lulling us with the beauty of the Cretan countryside, then plunging us into a life-threatening situation. Yes, you might argue, but these books were written over three decades ago. Such elaborate descriptions are out of style. No one nowadays has the patience to wade through all that minutiae. And maybe you’re right. Unless the author’s name is Tony Hillerman. Admire his skill in this excerpt from The Fallen Man:

“The sun was in its autumn mode, low in the southwest, and shadows slanted away from every juniper. They formed zebra stripes where the slopes ran north and a polka-dot pattern where they slanted. The grass was never really green in this land of little rain. Now it was golden autumn tan with streaks of silver and white where the sickle-shaped seeds of grama were waving, tinted blue here and there by distance and shadow. Miles away, beyond the hills, the vertical slopes of Chivato Mesa formed a wall. Above the mesa stood the serene blue shape of Tsodzil, the Turquoise Mountain which First Man had built as one of the four corner posts of Navaho Country. And over all that, the great, arching, multilayered sky – the thin translucent fan of ice crystals still glittering in the full sun. Thousands of feet lower, a scattering of puffy gray-white cumulus clouds – outriders of the storm the weatherman had been predicting – marched eastward ahead of the wind.”

Hillerman is the exception, however. For the most part, today’s audience, product of a fast-food world, prefers quicker pacing in their fiction. Clever writers respond by combining description and dialogue, description and action, or description and internal monologue. Here’s a nice bit of setting embedded in an action scene from Janet Evanovich’s Three to Get Deadly:

“The sky felt low and forbidding over the parking lot, and the air was as cold as a witch’s fadiddy. The lock was frozen on the Buick, and the windshield was coated with ice. I hammered on the lock, but it wouldn’t break loose, so I trekked back to my apartment and got some deicer and a plastic scraper. Ten minutes later, I had my door open, the heater going full blast, and I’d chipped a squint hole in the ice on my windshield.”

Or try this taste of L.A. from Robert Crais’s Stalking the Angel:

“I put the Corvette out onto Santa Monica and cruised west through Beverly Hills and the upper rim of Century City, then north up Beverly Glen past rows of palm trees and stuccoed apartment houses and Persian-owned construction projects. L.A. in late June is bright. With smog pressed down by an inversion layer, the sky turns white and the sun glares brilliantly from signs and awnings and reflective building glass and deep-waxed fenders and miles and miles of molten chrome bumpers. There were shirtless kids on skateboards on their way into Westwood and older women with big hats coming back from markets and construction workers tearing up the streets and Hispanic women waiting for buses and everybody wore sunglasses. It looked like a Ray Ban commercial.”

Okay, so mystery writers use setting to good effect. What about the romance genre? Here’s an example of setting combined with internal monologue from Jennifer Crusie’s Tell Me Lies:

“At seven that evening, C.L. leaned against the back door of his uncle’s farmhouse and listened to the crickets tuning up. They had about an hour to go before dark, but a few of them started early, and their creak blended with the wash of the river that ran past the farm a couple of hundred yards away, and with the birds making the most of the last of the hot August day. It was the kind of evening that made a man want to crawl into a hammock with a cold beer and a warm woman, but the woman he was trying not to think about was married and had slammed a door in his face. So much for hammock fantasies.”

My point is, if other contemporary writers can use setting to their advantage, then so can authors writing within the confines of category romance. Like me. Category romance is all about pacing, so usually I sprinkle in my setting, a little at a time. But my last book for Loveswept, Aquamarine, was a paranormal. The isolated island setting was crucial to the story, establishing the tone and atmosphere:

“The wind shifted subtly, stirring the mist in coiling currents. The sky had lightened. To the east, where the morning sun blazed behind a blanket of vapor, the fog was so white, it made his eyes ache. It would be a fine day once the shrouding haze burned off, but right now the alder thicket was dark and dank. Wisps of mist moved sinuously among the trees, muffling sounds and intensifying odors. He sniffed pine, leaf mold, catnip, and, underneath it all, something else. Something unpleasant. Something that made the hairs stand up along his forearms.”

Hint, hint. Enter danger. . . . Did I mention I want to be Mary Stewart when I grow up? I know. Dream on. And since I’m dreaming anyway, I think I’ll get back to Adrian Paul.

— Catherine Mulvany

Catherine’s web site – http://www.webpak.net/~robinlee/mulvany/catherine.html

Link to Catherine Mulvany reviews at AAR following our AAR Review of Upon a Midnight Clear

E-mail CatherineRead about Andrea Ryan, who secured and edited this Write Byte


Andrea Ryan – I’m 29 years old and live in St. Louis with my wonderful husband, who tolerates my marathon novel reading, an Irish Wolfhound, 2 cats and an African Grey Parrot that loves to talk. I don’t have any children (yet), but I have two extremely adorable (but very demanding) brand new nephews so I’m trying to get in all the reading I can until having children hits me! I have a B.A. in Russian and Spanish and speak, read or write 5 languages. I’m working on a Masters of Public Health degree (long career story) and working full time, so I’m having to find creative ways to squeeze in books between work projects, mid-terms and finals.

I started reading romance when I was about 15 (Laurie McBain, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Judith McNaught) and was hooked immediately. If Judy Bloom counts, then I started with Forever on my school bus in 6th grade. Then, my mom caught me reading Wifey and I was banned from reading romance until high school. That was actually okay with me since I got the shock of my life with that book, anyway.

I primarily read romance (any kind), but will take a break whenever Anne Rice comes out with a new book and sometimes read mystery/suspense. My dad wrote three books when I was a kid and I’ve had a secret desire for years to write a novel. (Will never happen). I love to write, but I leave the books in the book store to those truly gifted (which is not me). My husband doesn’t understand why I read romance, but, coming from a man who flew F/A-18s with the Marines, I don’t take it personally and just tell him to go away.

Although my list keeps growing, some of my favorite authors are Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Judith McNaught, LaVyrle Spencer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Diana Gabaldon, Patricia Gaffney, Geralyn Dawson, Connie Brockway, Loretta Chase and Eve Byron. I can’t imagine life without romance books!

Feel free to e-mail me here.

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