Monday, October 13, 2008

Not long ago I read a discussion some fellow authors were having about how they see strangers in a crowd and begin to imagine stories about that person. I could relate to this author oddity, which is probably shared by a lot of other imaginative people as well, but I realized that even stronger for me than people is the setting.

How strange! When stories are all about characters, why is the biggest trigger for me the place? I don't really know. All I know is when I see an old Victorian home that could be fantastically beautiful but looks slightly eerie, I imagine all kinds of gothic romance. That slight twinge of scary along with the promise of a brave heroine and a tortured but dashing hero who will be ultimately emotionally saved by that brave heroine...Ah! Such good stuff!

The first four books I wrote are what I call Romantic Adventures. I don't know anyone in real life who would have these things happen to them. But so much of these books, to me, were the settings. I picked places I want to go see. The first, Love Beyond Time, was a Civil War time travel. (A noble enough first effort, but kind of hokey). The second, No Time for Love, takes place in London, Greece and South America. The third, (my personal favorite and is now, ironically enough, out of print), A Time for the Heart is set on an archaeological dig in Guatemala, and the fourth, Echoes, (recently re-released and available wherever fine books are sold), takes place in Savannah, Georgia and the Tuscany region of Italy.

Now, of course, I do extensive character sketching and back story in my personal notes before I ever even begin to write a book. I plot like crazy and make notes to myself to keep all the twists and turns straight. But oh, how I love the setting. And as a reader, with a delicious setting I can almost forgive weak characters or silly plotting. Weeelll, maybe that's actually stretching things a bit, but you see what I mean.

How about you? Where does setting fall in your list of priorities, either as a reader or a writer?


Cheri J. Crane said...

I think settings are almost as crucial as believable characters. That's why when I travel, I take a ton of pictures and collect maps like crazy. I never know when I'll use something I've seen along the way for one of my stories.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Yes! Maps! I love maps. How silly is that? And when I write, I'm glued to my guidebooks to try to get an authentic feel if it's a place I haven't been to personally.

Jennie said...

Sometimes it's the setting, sometimes an interesting viewpoint, sometimes a character, and sometimes just the way the light strikes a child's hair, once it was a phrase from a Sunday School lesson, and once it was an old wire service story that never stopped haunting me. I think that for some of us it doesn't take much to start the wheels turning and our imagination rushing forward to catch the rest of the story.

Jeri Gilchrist said...

Nancy, when I read your books that you referred to as your "Romantic Adventures" I wondered if you had been to all those places. You did a wonderful job with your settings. They were great books. I loved your characters. I think setting is important because it puts me, as the reader, into the story. Helps me to visualize...but for me, the characters and the action is what grabs me first.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Jeri, thanks so much for your compliments. I can't wait to read your new book!

Jennie, which was the wire service story you mentioned?

Jennie said...

Nancy, I wrote Abandoned as my own conclusion to the story of a child who was abandoned by being set out on the barrior between lanes on the Los Angelos freeway and told to hang onto the mesh fence.

Michele Ashman Bell said...

I love to hear writers talk about the inspiration for their stories so your post was fascinating to read. The setting, for me, is vital to making a story come alive, whether I'm writing or reading. That's why books are so amazing and powerful, because you feel like you are transported to that setting! Great post.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Jennie, that is haunting. I need to read that one.

Michele, that's what I love about reading, too. It's like being able to take a fantastic vacation without having to actually pay for it! ;-)

David G. Woolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David G. Woolley said...

In my view, authors select settings in two different ways. Either by the author’s preference or by what the story dictates.

If you select your setting because of its beauty, its fame or some sentimental experience you've had with that location, you may sacrifice some important story-telling elements. Author-centered scene selection is a place to which the author has an attachment. Not the reader. And the author has to work very hard to get the reader to like the place as much as the author likes it. This approach doesn't work when you're trying to develop a voice for your character and it often falls flat when you select your setting.

Story-centered scene selection allows your story and the voice of your character to select the setting. What is the dramatic point of your scene? Once you know that you can use your setting as a metaphor for the drama. Is the scene about death? The end of life? What setting could act as a metaphor for death? Turning out lights at the end of the scene and have the setting go dark would work. So make sure you set the scene in a place where there is a candle, an oil lamp, a light switch. Depending on the emotion of the scene you can have the character blow out the lamp, the wind smoother the flame, or a tear drop on the candle and have your scene go dark.

Or maybe your character is getting progressively angry. You could set the scene in a location where he's chopping wood. As the scene progresses with heightened anger the character works the ax with more ferocity, sends wood chips flying, maybe even misses the mark and nearly hurts himself with the ax. Wouldn’t that be a great twist on anger, using a small self-inflicted wound really as a metaphor about anger hurting the angry.

Scene selection can be a powerful tool for story-telling. When your scene selection is author-centered you may miss some great story telling elements. When you let the drama and metaphors of your story select the scene, you enhance your story telling.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

This has made me delve more deeply into what, exactly, makes me love setting so much and I've realized that for me, it's often the start of the whole story. It's the instigator that gets things going.

I'm one of those odd authors who really isn't very descriptive. I'm having to train myself to be observant to the literal world because it's so easy for me to slip into my imaginary one in my head and daydream stories when I need to also glean what's there on the outside.

So for me, my setting isn't so much about beautiful and eloquent writing, it's what helps shape the characters I put into it. Like the haunted Victorian house. Or the Scottish Moors, or a beautiful beach, or Norway in the summer, or an archaeological dig in Guatemala...all of these things shape what I do with the characters and how their lives evolve.

So I guess if someone were to ask me that "where do you get your ideas" question, my answer is that I imagine cool settings where the air is just crackling for something amazing to happen. I also do the same thing with occupations. Many of my stories have come about because I thing a particular job is cool and voila, my character begins to take shape around the job. Then I throw in things like family life, personality type, likes and dislikes, motivations, etc.

Also, one more thought about setting itself- sometimes the setting will shape much of the plot and/or character action. Scenes of war, for example. A Civil War novel, or WWII novel will play heavily into scene/setting. Ancient Rome or Greece, life behind the Iron Curtain. Of course, I guess those examples could be attributed to events rather than the setting itself.

Oh well. I wax raphsodic. Thanks for making me think on this further! I actually contemplated all this while I walked in one of my favorite settings this morning- along the base of the mountain a few blocks up from my house. Wow, what a beautiful morning. :-)