Please welcome first-time Visiting Professor, author Ella Carey.
My novels are all love letters to their settings. Settings, like characters, often find writers, rather than the other way around. Something needs to resonate between me and a character for me to want to write about them, and I find it’s exactly the same thing with the place where a novel is set. Once that place, like a character, has a hold on you, you simply have to write about it.
It’s been a case of having visited a place—Paris of course, in Paris Time Capsule and Berlin in The House by the Lake—and something instinctive has developed there. I have to feel something for a place to want to write about it. If you are stuck as to where to set your novel, try choosing somewhere that moves you as if you do that, chances are, your setting will also move your reader. Your setting can be anywhere, as long as it means something to you, so that you want to find out more, to paint it in your own words, to get to the truth, the heart of that place in your setting as you do in your story. Character, setting, and story are all interwoven. The point is, you want your reader to want more- of all of it.
In Paris Time Capsule, I had a true story about an abandoned apartment on which to draw, which was, of course, inherently romantic in itself, but as I wrote, place took over, and I found myself intertwining setting description into the story because I felt so much about Paris, and the apartment at the same time. In The House by the Lake, Berlin was incredibly evocative for me—not so much shouting at me as whispering, wanting to reveal secrets. Berlin’s history is so rich that there are countless ideas and inspirations to be found. For me, the German city was such a poignant, moving place to visit. I was just so moved by the fact that the Second World War and the Cold War were around every corner—you couldn’t get away from the past, even though large parts of the former East Berlin have been rebuilt almost as if that was exactly what people wanted to do… I came away with far more questions than answers. I came away wanting to get to some sort of truth.
So, once you have found that place that resonates with you, you need to write it through your character’s eyes. Remember, they may not have been there. The last thing you want to do is be didactic. You don’t want information dumps in your scenes. So, how do you avoid that? Write about the place that resonates with you just as your character sees it, just as your character feels it. Remember, they may not have been there before. They don’t need to know all about the place. You just need to see what they see, feel what they feel. Have your reader do the same thing.
Use the senses—touch, smell, the acrid taste of street food on a wooden skewer in a market, whatever it is, just add little details that bring the place to life. Think about how you notice things. We notice funny details sometimes—not the obvious. Don’t we? We look at people who we pass in the street in our very own ways, thoughts about them fly into our heads, we notice odd things—how one café is full of conversation, while another is standing half dead, a hawker outside on the cold pavement, trying to drum up desperate business. Who is he, where does he live? Just look at it through your character’s eyes. What do they see, feel, taste, smell, touch, hear? What would they think? How would they respond?
As for the next thing, it’s all too easy to write clichéd scenes when describing settings. So turn your clichés on their head. If the first thing that comes into your head is the obvious, question it. Ask yourself how you can re-write your settings and make things far less mundane. In The House by the Lake, Anna goes to visit the local mayor of the village near the lovely old palace that is central to the mystery she’s trying to solve. She’s seeking information, but the last thing we want is a clichéd information dump. So you imagine this local mayor in his office, in a smart building in the center of town? Right? Wrong. Cliché. The mayor is the elderly woman who runs the village shop. And she won’t talk to Anna, she won’t give anything away. So you take these funny little details and turn small parts of the setting into something original. Notice the quirks. Make up the quirks.
One sentence of research can inspire a whole chapter of a novel. You don’t need to include all the details in your setting description. Your readers will fill in the gaps. As with any scene that you write, everything needs to move story forward and move the reader.
Use setting to move story forward- imagine a character, like Cat in Paris Time Capsule, walking into a room that belongs to a woman who died six weeks ago, but her TV guide is sitting on a coffee table, open to this week… see how setting can move story forward, can move a character, can move the reader and make them think.
Finally, one of the best pieces of advice I have received about setting, is to keep your world small. Crime and Punishment is set in a small world, so is War and Peace—it’s about a few Russian families.
Writing is an emotive art form. Tap into that to create evocative settings that are filled with quirky details seen through your character’s eyes.
These are tips that work for me. Take what works for you and I do hope you enjoy dreaming up wonderful settings for your books!
The House by the Lake – March 2016
Anna is content with her well-ordered life in San Francisco. But her world is turned upside down when her beloved grandfather, Max, reveals a startling secret: Anna is part of an aristocratic family who lost everything during World War II. What’s more, Max was forced to leave behind a precious item over seventy years ago in their estate in old Prussia. It’s now his ardent wish that Anna retrieve it.
Anna burns with questions as she heads for Germany: What memento could be so important to her grandfather? And why did he keep their history hidden? As she searches for answers, she finds herself drawn to Wil, a man who may hold the key to unlock the mystery. Together they discover that her family’s secrets are linked with an abandoned apartment in Paris, and these secrets go deeper than she ever imagined.
Alternating between 1930s Europe and the present, The House by the Lake illuminates the destiny of a family caught in the tumult of history.
Bio: Ella Carey is a writer and Francophile who claims Paris as her second home. She has been studying French since the age of five, and she has degrees in music and English. Her debut novel, The Paris Time Capsule, has captured global attention and her second novel, The House By The Lake, will be released on March 29th, 2016. She lives with her two children and a pair of Italian greyhounds in Hobart.
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