I’m excited to welcome one of my favorite authors, JULIE ANNE LONG! I first got to “know” Julie through her historical romances. Now her contemporary romances have joined her historicals on my keeper shelves. Scroll down for details of Julie’s giveaway!
Use the ordinary to create the extraordinary:
how setting can help you illuminate character,
build emotion and captivate readers
If emotion is the the lifeblood or a romance novel, then pacing is the propulsive force, the musculature, if you will. And creating an immersive world for the reader—one that dissolves the boundaries of reality and feels not only like an escape, but like a place so real you can practically smell it and touch, and populated by people so vivid and multi-dimensional that your heart breaks and soars along with theirs—requires a strategic balance of the two. Every scene should be somehow rooted in emotion; every word should make a reader hungry for the next word; every character should leap off the page. That’s the ideal, anyway!
Creating that immersive world requires constructing sentences means choosing words artfully, with discretion and economy. The problem is, words are delicious, and I, for one, am a glutton. Sitting down to write is like sidling up to a buffet table groaning under the weight of tempting things. There’s a visceral pleasure in describing, for instance, a Regency ballroom or the rugged Northern California mountains, but indulging in long, luscious passages of description is a risk: it can throw a reader out of the emotional flow of a story. In fact, description of a setting, while often necessary, isn’t inherently or obviously emotional, not in the way dialogue, for instance, can be.
The key is integrating all of these elements. Seemingly ordinary things—a clock, a chair, a tree-covered hill—can be used as tools to illuminate character, keep a scene rooted in emotion or tension, and give the story a truly dimensional texture that wraps a reader in a lovely escapist cocoon.
For example, in this passage from the beginning of IT STARTED WITH A SCANDAL, Elise Fountain is meeting the intimidating Lord Lavay, her potential employer, for the first time.
He gestured to a chair upholstered in chocolate-covered velvet. She might as well have been a chair herself for all the charm he exerted. She felt positively neutered. Which was perhaps all for the best.
She sat gingerly, and, she hoped, gracefully, on the edge of it, the better to bolt if necessary, and folded her hands.
Oh God. The chair was so….soft. It cradled her bum almost lasciviously. Its tall, spreading fan of a back beckoned like a lover’s arms. And her life had seemed so narrow and so spiky for so long, in every direction she turned, that the comfort surprised her by nearly doing her in.
The chair anchoring this little passage—decadently velvet, comfortable and masculine–not only helps illustrate the setting, it’s the means by which we learn a lot of things: Lord Lavay is intimidating and cold, impervious to whatever charms Elise might possess (the “which might be all for the best” hints that her charms may have gotten her into trouble in the past); Lavay’s life of luxury and comfort is a profound contrast to the one Elise has been living, such that the comfort is nearly devastating. She sits primly o the edge of the seat, nervous but determined; we sense her desperation.
Here’s another little example from the beginning scenes of WILD AT WHISKEY CREEK in my Hellcat Canyon series. In this passage, Deputy Sheriff Eli Barlow is sitting in his sheriff’s deputy cruiser outside a dive bar deep in the hills of Hellcat Canyon, after an emotionally bruising, futile attempt to reason with a stubborn Glory Greenleaf, whom he’s loved his entire life and has been estranged from for nearly a year—and maybe forever.
Eli looked out over the inky dark of the hills. The Plugged Nickel was roughly situated between Whiskey Creek and Coyote Creek. One was for pissing in, one was for swimming in, his dad had once said. Though he and Jonah had done both in both, grossing Glory out thoroughly.
It was so dark you’d have to stare for a long time to even make out the shapes of individual trees, though the hillside was carpeted with them. Imagining a life without Glory was a bit like that. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make out its outlines.
Using the rugged, rural setting as a springboard, we get a sense of place—the dead of night in the remote hills of California; a sense of the long, loving, playful, rough-and-tumble history between the characters; and Eli’s frustrated desolation, his longing and sense of limbo.
Then there’s these few sentences IT HAPPENED ONE MIDNIGHT (from my Pennyroyal Green series), when Jonathan Redmond receives a summons to his father’s library:
If Isaiah’s library had been a symphony, it would have been written by Bach—tasteful, controlled, masculine, orderly. Browns and creams and rich dense fabrics—velvet, wool, crepe. The better to muffle the screams of Isaiah’s victims, Jonathan thought, amused.
Jonathan Redmond’s interpretation of his father’s library tells us both quite a bit about him—he’s definitely a rogue with a sense of humor (a mordant, resigned one, when it comes to his father)—and quite a bit about his father Isaiah, too: it hints at his love of luxury and his controlling (sometimes icily, even brutally, controlling) nature.
Here’s his brother Lyon back in the same library in the THE LEGEND OF LYON REDMOND—just as he’s flying down the stairs to a scheduled secret, dangerous forbidden assignation with Olivia Eversea, his father beckons him to the library. Lyon has a different relationship with his father than Jonathan does, and given the circumstances, different details become significant to Lyon. In a quick few sentences, using a clock and a boot, we can help convey a sense of tension, scene and character:
“Have a seat.”
Damn. If sitting was required, then something serious was afoot.
Lyon did, pulling out a chair and arranging himself casually in it, crossing his legs and swinging one polished Hoby Hessian.
He could see the reflection of the clock in its toe. The pendulum kept swinging traitorously.
Lyon’s leg is swinging impatiently, even if he’s feigning casual compliance; he’s suddenly painful aware of the clock— the pendulum, which echoes his swinging foot, is seen as “traitorous”— because he’s desperate to be on his way to Olivia, and time refuses to stop for him.
Time, in fact, waits for no one. So make good choices and have fun at the Word Buffet, kids, as you finish that Work in Progress.
Question: What are some of your favorite settings in romances, and why? How do they make you feel?
GIVEAWAY! One lucky commenter today will win a signed, paperback copy of 2016 RITA nominee
HOT IN HELLCAT CANYON. Please note that the contest is limited to residents of the U.S.
A broken truck, a broken career and a breakup heard around world lands superstar John Tennessee McCord in Hellcat Canyon. Legend has it hearts come in two colors there: gold or black. And that you can find whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s love…or trouble. JT McCord may have found both in waitress Britt Langley.
Britt sees right through JT’s hard edge and soft drawl to a person a lot like her: someone in need of comfort and the kind of healing best given hot and quick, with clothes off and the lights out.
Her wit is sharp but her eyes and heart—not to mention the rest of her—are soft, and JT is falling hard. But Britt is hiding a few secrets as dark as the hills, and JT’s past looks set to invade their present. It’s up to the people of Hellcat Canyon to help make sure their future includes a happily ever after.
USA Today Bestselling author and Rita Award winner Anne Long’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and nominated for numerous awards, including the Romance Writers of America Rita and Romantic Times Reviewer’s choice, and reviewers have called them “dazzling,” “brilliant” and “impossible to put down.” HOT IN HELLCAT CANYON, named by Amazon.com as one of the Best books of 2016, was nominated for a 2016 Rita Award, and Kirkus Reviews named WILD AT WHISKEY CREEK one of the best books of 2016. She lives in California.
DIRTY DANCING AT DEVIL’S LEAP, September 2017:
- Second Chance Romance by LuAnn McLane
- 5 Easy Steps to Keeping it Fresh, by Jennifer Probst
- Writing Holiday Romance by Nancy Naigle
- Long Journey to a Small Press with Debut Author Susan Boyer
- Lynne Marshall Presents: Is There a Secret to Creating Likable Characters?