When I was in high school, I read a book about a teen heroine who routinely rode her bike to the Krispy Kreme for a donut and a Coke. I was captivated by the setting where Krispy Kremes and Piggly Wiggly were fixtures in a small southern town. Twenty-odd years later, I’m in Alabama for the Winston Cup. I was more excited about tasitng my first Krispy Kreme donut than attending the big race. On our way to Talladega, the details of that book I’d read ages ago came to life—the red clay soil, the Roll Tide bumper stickers and references to Bear Bryant, and of course, the occasional Piggly Wiggly.
What is it about a setting that makes it memorable? How do you weave the specifics of a locale so it immerses a reader into your character’s environment, especially if the setting is in a place you’ve never visited?
Novel Spots is a new column about settings. While we can craft fictional settings or research a specific city on the Internet to gain a sense of a place, locale is more than a description of buildings, weather, or expanses of forested hillsides. Locale encompasses the rhythm of life whether it’s in a tiny village or big city, the attitude of the residents, the local colloquialisms and extends to regional food and history. Like great characters and plot, a detailed setting draws a reader in and adds texture to a story.
Author Loucinda McGary is our guest today. An avid traveler and a master at weaving bits of history, folklore and local patois into her stories, Loucinda will be a regular contributor to our Novel Spots column.
Great to have you back, Loucinda!
Thanks so much to Jen and the rest of the RU staff for inviting me! And I’m very complimented that my settings have resonated with you and many of my other readers. One of the first romantic suspense authors I read (and still love) was Mary Stewart. I was in awe of how she worked in details about her settings (Corfu, Spain, the English countryside) so that I actually felt like I was there. When I started to seriously pursue publication, I vowed that I would try to emulate her and make my settings as much a part of the story as the characters.
I know you’ve always been a writer long before you were published. Do you plan trips to places with a story in mind?
I only wish I were that organized! Unfortunately, I’m not. I never know when a place I visit will inspire a story idea. Plenty of times, when I am visiting a particular place or seeing certain sights, I’ll think, “This would be great in a story!” But it may or may not ever appear in one of my books.
When I sat down to write my first contemporary romantic suspense, I wanted to set it some place romantic but exotic. I chose Venice, Italy (and the book eventually became The Treasures of Venice). Even though I’d only been there once and never thought to write a book set there, Venice left a strong, lasting impression on me. Plus, there are tons of photos and many books already written about the city. I read and looked at a lot of pictures, including my own snapshots and travel journal to put myself back in “Venice mode.”
My current work-in-progress is set on Mackinac Island which is between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. I visited Mackinac about eighteen months ago, and at the time, I was charmed by the Victorian way of life with no motor vehicles. However, I didn’t think I would set a story there until about four months ago when the plot and characters for my WIP started forming in my mind.
What are the most crucial details about setting? You need enough for credibility, but how much without sounding like a travel brochure?
As you mentioned in your introduction, Jen, I think the writer needs to capture the rhythm of a particular place. Then try to convey that essence as succinctly as possible. I believe the best way to do this is to filter everything through your character’s point of view. Use all five senses to capture what is unique and memorable about a place. Most people tend to favor one of their senses over the others. If you are a visual person (like me) then be sure to include what your character hears, smells, and even how a place makes them feel. For instance, ever been someplace so humid that you felt like you had a wet blanket over your face? Same if you’re an auditory person, try to work in some visual and other details.
I also depend on my critique partner and beta readers to tell me when I have too much detail. Usually, I err in the other direction and need to put in a bit more.
What’s essential when you’re writing about a place you’ve never visited?
For me, I have to feel like I’m actually there, and the best way to do that is show it through my characters’ perceptions. If your character is from a small town and she finds herself in a big city, certain aspects of the place will stand out for her, like the traffic, the noise, the crowds. And vice versa, if your heroine is from a place like Los Angeles then she will get an entirely different feel for a rural setting.
From my first published novel The Wild Sight, here is how Southern California girl Rylie views the rather primitive Irish cottage where Donovan O’Shea lived as a child:
…Rylie looked around the room, which was dominated by an enormous stone fireplace that had once served for both cooking and warmth. She peeked through the open doorway into the adjoining room, where the same fireplace had a second hearth….
Cold seeped from the flat gray stones of the floor through the rubber soles of her sneakers, a testament to the uncomfortable reality Donovan had mentioned earlier.
“How long did you live here?” she asked.
“My first seven years.” He motioned to a steep set of stairs build into the wall behind the front door. “My sister and I slept in the loft, same as my mother and her sister had done.” His tone and expression softened, no doubt with memories. “The roof was thatch when my mum and Aunt Fee were little, but my grandfather replaced it with tin.” He looked over his shoulder at the door in the end wall. “He also added the wash room and loo onto the back along with electricity.”
Rylie searched her mind to recall where she had lived at the same age…. She had never seen where her mother grew up in Brooklyn, but she knew for sure it had running water and electricity.
Donovan O’Shea stood with one foot resting on the bottom step, gazing up into the attic space that had once been his shared bedroom. Guilt washed over Rylie at the recollection of how she’d questioned him about moving to America…”
I admit, I cheated a little on that cottage. It is the same place that has been in my DH’s family for generations, and his grandmother was born and raised there. I was lucky enough to visit it a time or two, and the cold really did seep from the slate floor through the soles of my sneakers. However, I absolutely believe you can write about a place, even if you’ve never been there. But you need to research and you also need to relate it to some place you do know. For instance, you might never had stood on an Irish beach and gazed out at a stormy North Atlantic. But if you have stood on any beach during a storm, then you can relate some of those same details and feelings.
How do you include the specifics of a setting into the story without disrupting the pace?
Pace is a very tricky aspect of writing, and I think most writers eventually develop an intrinsic feel for it. I know I have, and I depend on this innate sense to keep an appropriate balance between detail and action. However, once again, I know I can depend on my critique partner to point out any spots where my instincts slipped and I need to step up the pace.
I judge a lot of contests, and pacing is almost always an area of consideration. One mistake I see in a lot of contest entries (and I assume these are new, unpublished writers) is a tendency to write one or two paragraphs of action, then one or two of description. That kind of uneven pacing will throw your reader right out of the story. Plus, in this age of instant gratification, readers are not going to sit still long enough to read long passages of description.
A far better technique is to mix short phrases, maybe even a word or two of description into the action. My advice is when you are ready to revise your manuscript, highlight any areas that have more than a line or two of description. Then, see if you can break those chunks into smaller pieces and intersperse them with the actions in your scene. Trust me, the more you do this, the easier it will become.
Thanks again to RU for giving me a chance to talk about one of my favorite topics. I hope this information on setting has been useful and will help more writers create those memorable settings that stay with a reader for a long, long time.
If you have other questions about settings you’d like for me to address, please speak up! I’ll answer all that I can in the comments, or perhaps address larger topics in future posts.
HIS RELUCTANT BODYGUARD is the second book in Loucinda’s Adventure Cruise Line series.
The last person cruise director Avery Knox expected to see aboard her
very first trip out on Valiant is former college football star, Rip Pollendene. A decade ago, she had turned down his advances at the University of Miami and lived to regret her decision. Why is she so reluctant to take the second chance she’s been handed?
“Rip Pollendene is the heir apparent to a beautiful island nation. But it’s a heritage Rip has ignored and rejected for twenty years. Now his homeland is on the brink of a bloody civil war with outside forces trying to manipulate the outcome. Is that why someone wants him dead?
“How much should Rip sacrifice for a country he hardly knows? And is it sheer coincidence that has thrown golden girl Avery Knox back into his life?”
Author Misha Crews joins us on Monday, January 14th.
Bio: A Golden Heart finalist, Loucinda McGary is the author of three contemporary romantic suspense novels, The Wild Sight, The Treasures of Venice and The Wild Irish Sea. Her later books, The Sidhe Prince, High Seas Deception, and His Reluctant Bodyguard, are available on Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes and Noble.
- Novel Spots with Loucinda McGary – Setting: Using Instant Recognition
- Five Things to Consider During Revisions with Loucinda McGary
- Loucinda McGary – Five Things that Drive Contest Judges Bonkers
- CTW: Pitching Strikes
- Weekly Lecture Schedule: March 4 – March 8, 2013