I met Robena Grant at Jennifer Crusie’s Cherry Forum, when I first ventured into the thrilling but terrifying world of fiction writing. Please welcome Robena – this is her debut visit to Romance University – please note, Robena will give away a print copy of CORSICA GATE and RING ME LATER to one of today’s commenters. (Corsica Gate is a contemporary and Ring Me Later is a romantic suspense.)
We develop intriguing characters and give them amazing lines of dialogue, and work hard to perfect our plot, but what about setting?
Spending time developing the appropriate setting for your story will create a unifying element, bringing in and using all of the senses. It will create authenticity that will have your hard-earned words, and plot, taking your reader on an incredible and believable journey.
Looking at the big picture, setting is both the time and place of story. You might choose a well-known city, a fictional town, a planet in outer space, or a ship on the high seas. The time might be contemporary, historical, or futuristic. Whatever you choose as your backdrop, be aware that your setting will evoke mood, tension, color, sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and so on. Whatever your chosen setting is, it will inform all of the senses. If you’re creating a new world then you have freedom to write whatever you want. If your setting is a well-known city, or town, make sure to do your research.
Imagine a female lawyer in New York City. What do you immediately think about? Now imagine a female lawyer in a small town in Texas. How does the setting change the way the lawyer dresses, walks, talks, what vehicle she drives, how she speaks, what she eats, where she was educated, what she does for entertainment? What differences are there in the weather in both of these settings? What is the foliage like? What animals would be found in these settings? What cultural and religious differences might be found? What is the geography?
When we narrow the lens of the camera and focus on setting at the level of scene, we can see if the nuances of setting are there on the page, and if so, it will ground the character, making her more believable. Set her in a location in her world, a nightclub or bar, a Manhattan apartment, a ranch style home, or a double-wide in a trailer park. The devil is in the details. And those details don’t need to be overdone. Use a deft hand. Most readers of contemporary fiction prefer less descriptive passages, while sci-fi and historical readers welcome the details of the world building, or historical facts.
Setting, just like weather, can be used as character. Remember not to be heavy-handed, or those passages will be the parts the reader will skip, or skim over. Always create movement within setting, rather than describe for effect. What does the character see, feel, smell? Use her specific language. Rather than describe the red truck sitting in the parking lot, say, “She sprinted through the rain, to where the red, mud-splattered truck sat, one rear back tire flatter than a pancake.”
Remember our two lawyers? Picture them leaving their office to go home for the evening. What time is it? Who or what are they going home to greet…a family, or another microwaved meal? Is she going out for cocktails after work, or going home to bathe and feed the kids? Show the office building, a coat being slipped on, or slipping into flat shoes, show the purse being carried, or the car keys being shoved into a pocket. What is the mode of transportation? Is it a taxi, a subway, a mud-splattered truck? What is the weather like? What does our lawyer observe as she leaves her building? Does she speak to anyone, or notice anything unusual?
Now tell your story again, zoom in tight with the camera lens and focus on the vehicle. Give it a story. The lawyer in NYC: She pulled her coat tight, wrapped a cashmere scarf around her neck and ducked her head, gripping her purse close to her side. Snow flurries hit her face and she moved with the crowd, ignoring the honking of taxis and the stinky exhaust fumes. She should hail a cab. The subway stairs were slick, but the sheer volume of people kept her upright. On the platform, she scanned the crowds. She’d never seen him in the evening. She grabbed a seat on the train and pulled out a book. Nobody spoke. Her feet ached, but she closed her eyes and drifted off to the gentle movement. She’d noticed him every morning this week, on the 8:20. He got off at Lexington, one stop before hers, giving her a quick nod and slight smile. Would she see him tomorrow? Would she finally get up the courage to speak to him?
Meanwhile, in the small Texas town: She sprinted through the rain and mud, lightning flashing in the distance, not bothering with a coat. Her old leather jacket had seen better years but it was protection enough. She almost slipped but reached the safety of her truck, and pulled the keys from her pocket. Inside she turned up the heat, blasted the music, and wondered again if she’d be able to make the car payment this month. One quick glance at the passenger seat and she turned the ignition. Is he enjoying his new life in Dallas? She’d seen his new 2015 BMW, and the fashionable, thin, brunette he escorted around the city. Tears threatened. He was an ass and not worth her tears. Besides, it was time to pick up the kids from school.
See what happened?
The vehicle’s description has changed. It’s not just a truck or a train. It’s part of the woman’s hopes and dreams, and life. It’s part of the story world. It has a history, and that history causes the setting to come to life. Always bring setting to the page through action. You can show the season through weather, the time period through stating the year, or something in the newspaper, or on television, like an election year, or the Olympics, or even the sighting of a brand new 2015 BMW.
One of my favorite books is Story, by Robert McKee. He speaks of the principle of creative limitation and I’m paraphrasing here. He says that limitation is vital when it comes to setting. Create a small knowable world. The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn’t inhibit creativity; it inspires it. The world of the story has to be small enough so that the creator can know and understand it in depth and detail.
Do you plan your setting before beginning to write? Some writers don’t think much about setting but allow their story to take place and emerge naturally. There is no right or wrong way. For me, setting often comes before character.
On Friday, July 3, author LYNNE MARSHALL presents “Taming the Testy Heroine”
Robena Grant writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense. Published with The Wild Rose Press, she has six books out and one in the works. Robena adores reading, chocolate, wine, coffee, and karaoke, but travel is her greatest love and she often incorporates the places and customs that fascinate her into her stories. She is a member of RWA and her local chapter, LARA, is in Los Angeles. A native of Australia, she now resides in the California desert.
A second chance at romance turns deadly.
Jack Barron is a reclusive, billionaire, hotelier who never got over his first love. Lisa Carpenter moved to London to escape him and his obsession with money. After five years, Lisa returns to Los Angeles to work in public relations at a medical center. She’s certain their paths won’t cross but they do…almost immediately. Forced into working together, because of a multi-million dollar grant, she must keep her wits about her. Jack wants to redeem himself; Lisa wants respect. He’s advancing; she’s retreating.
As her heart warms to him, she becomes embroiled in a web of deceit that ensures someone will gain billions. Lisa is being stalked. There is arson at Jack’s Arizona resort spa. A wealthy Broadway producer is trying to buy the spa. And the paparazzi are having a field day with Jack’s return to the social scene.
With nowhere to hide, they must trust in each other. Could all roads lead back to London?
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