Monday, November 22, 2010

Lights, Camera, Ostriches

Yesterday I helped a friend scout out a location for a scene in his book. We went to an ostrich farm. He had originally planned for the scene to take place on a non-ostrich farm, but he thought a few of those amazing birds could spice things up a bit.

And, I think they will.

It got me to thinking about my own settings in my stories. Most of the time my scenes take place in pretty ordinary locations. A Pasadena condo, a suburban home, a bakery in Paris. Even when I set my stories in places that most people wouldn't know about...say Thailand or Brazil, I often downplay the "exotic" nature of the place because I thought it might make the story too gimmicky.

But, lately, I've been realizing how exciting it is for readers to experience a new location while they are going through the story. It helps the story work double duty, taking readers on a physical trip, along with the emotional trip I hope I've managed to create. It makes me think much harder about the settings in my stories.

I don't think a setting has to be exotic to work, but I do think the place where your scene occurs should affect the actions and emotions of your characters. A neutral setting may serve to establish your characters in space, but chances are the details about that setting will feel extraneous. If the setting has an impact on the story, it feels much more important and more well-thought out. It also feels more real.

If it's a place many people might already be familiar with, I now try to focus on unexpected details about the place. For instance I recently wrote about a scene that took place in Notre Dame Cathedral, and instead of only focusing on the beautiful stained glass windows, I had one of my characters fixate on the checkered floors.

If the scene in your story takes place somewhere I'm not familiar with, a bit of research will usually be called for. Then, it's up to me to share the facts I learned without making the details feel too forced.

Setting was something I didn't pay much attention to for a long time. But, now I see it as an exciting new element to work into my stories.

What about you? How do you come up with the settings in your stories? What sort of impact would it have on your story if you moved a scene from one setting to another?


  1. Ultimately, where I want to be is where I'm letting readers experience the exotic through my setting, even if it's a setting that they might find ordinary. I do like to point out things in my settings that give the place unique character, and I think that goes a long way toward that end.

    Right now, I'm not really there. Partly because of the stories I'm writing and partly because of a long, hard struggle to overcome the abuse of setting in my writing, I take an as-needed approach. A setting may be part of the character or it may be part the scene, but it is rarely its own entity in my current writing. Its uniqueness contributes to something else, but does generally collect its own attention.

    Often time, and this is something Michelle actually helped me realize consciously that I was doing, when a setting is ordinary enough I don't want to get pulled too far into it, I'll use a touchstone object as the stand-in for setting.

    Now, from a general perspective, as a reader, I think the importance of setting depends greatly on what kind of story you're writing. Swiss Family Robinson? Jurassic Park? Gulliver's Travels? Treasure Island? Moonstone? Those books are, at least in part, immersive, explorative experiences for readers. Tennesee Williams uses setting as a force in much of his writing; you don't explore it, but you feel it.

    Not every book needs to be that, though. When I'm reading, sometimes the setting can be a distraction that I end up exploring so intently I lose track of other, more important elements in a story.

  2. I wrote a blog post about this a while back. Here's the link if you're interested.
    Great post, by the way!

  3. I think a big reason I love books so much is their ability to take you away to another place or another time. so, for me the setting is a very important part of that. the world that a writer creates is just as important as the characters. I tend to be a very visual person, so when a book grabs me it is often because I can see the story unfolding in my mind's eye. In my own work, I've always tried to travel to the places I'm writing about (if a story or a scene in a novel takes place somewhere I've never been before.) You can get a lot out of research or photos or youtube, but by being on a "location" physically you end up noticing details or seeing things you couldn't make up otherwise and that always makes the work stronger I think.

  4. Literary Lab, I have never questioned you before; I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were smart men or dumb, why we wrote or why we slept. All that matters is that a few stood out of many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Literary Lab, so grant me one request: grant me an answer! And if you do not listen, then to Hell with you!

  5. I didn't think nearly as much about setting before I read Cormac McCarthy. Now I'm kinda sorta coming around to how setting can be integral to a story and resonate with the characters/actions.

    Also, you're right that readers like to be transported in stories. Perhaps that's why I love Hemingway so much--all that virtual tooling around Europe and Africa. Oh, and the prose, too.

    That's one reason I set my most recent story in Paris, despite never having set foot there. (I seriously heart Google Maps Street View....)

  6. I've been thinking about this post.

    Mostly because it re-ignited my afore-mentioned interest in farming exotic animals.

    But also because of something that Simon just brought to mind. Not sure what he said that jogged this, but he gets the credit none-the-less.

    I don't do a lot with setting in terms of transporting the readers to another place to look around, but my writing can become very atmospheric and draw in a lot of details of setting that way. When I do that, though, it's more about evoking a feeling or experience for the reader rather than giving them something to wonder and marvel at.

  7. Great post, Davin! I'd like to read that book with the ostrich scene. :)

    I love setting - it always plays a fairly large role in my stories, and I always try to expound upon details to bring things to life.

    Justus, what ARE you talking about?

  8. Justus is talking about the question he left on our "ask us" page. I have emailed him an answer full of equivocation, which is apparently all I've got today, because here comes some more.

    My answer to Davin's questions about setting is that I don't know. Killing Hamlet was set in Denmark because Shakespeare wrote about Denmark; the island of Hven was almost an accidental discovery upon which I stumbled.

    The setting of Cocke & Bull is Maryland/Virginia in 1749 and it came about because I was thinking of Baltimore as a setting for a different novel, and 1749 because I had an image in my mind of two guys in tricorn hats riding horses. The setting of Nowhere But North (the book I'm now writing) is Antarctica (and New York) because it's based loosely on a real expedition that happened around 1915, so the setting was chosen for me.

    I don't really care about exoticism in location, and extensive world building doesn't move me as a reader (which is why I don't read much SF/F, because the world building seems to be a big part of that writing and I just want to know about the characters and what they're doing so you might as well set the book in a convenience store).

    I don't really think much about details of setting while I'm writing; I think more and more just about "story" and all of the components of a narrative are becoming aspects of one thing for me. So I add details for lots of reasons and what I think about is if things feel "real," which likely has a special meaning for me. I describe things to draw attention to them, for several purposes that are vague even to me. Like I said, I'm full of useless equivocation today.

  9. The settings I've chosen so far are locales familiar to me or it'll be someplace I'd like to visit. What I find strange is my habit of introducing extreme weather in my stories. Most of the time it doesn't add to the story, but I still do it. Freshman mistake?

  10. Charlie: Yeah, I think that people often feel compelled to make everything overly "interesting" if they put it into the story. It's like how people avoid using the words "said" and "walked," looking for more interesting verbs that end up sounding ridiculous. If the weather is just getting in the way, you don't have to mention it at all. Adding a lightning storm won't necessarily increase the drama of the story.

  11. Hi everyone,
    Sorry I haven't been around. It's one of those days.

    Nevets, thanks for your thoughts. Your stance on setting is similar to mine, but I'll say I've been questioning it more than I used to. It does come from my own personal preferences, though. When I think back on my favorite writers, they all seem to have a strong sense of setting.

    Aimee, thanks for your link! I'll check it out.

    TJN, I think there's definitely something to be said for actually going to the places you're writing about. Ideally, you'll get to inhabit those places for a good amount of time so that you can write about them with some confidence and familiarity. I feel like I've gained that from some places but not in others. Thailand, for some reason, often eludes me. Maybe that's because I always visit with my family rather than as someone who is discovering a new place.

    Justus, I see below that your reply will require some more effort.

    Simon, McCarthy had some influencing on me thinking about setting too. Somehow his setting and poetry ties together for me in a cool way. Go Paris!

  12. Michelle, the sense of place feels strong in many of your stories. Places in nature always feel magical when you write about them. I think that's probably because you don't live in LA!

    Scott, it really fascinates me that you say that because setting always feel very strong in your stories too. I would have guessed that you spent quite a lot of time working those details out. I see you with maps. But, I guess that was just an assumption on my part!

    Charlie, That's interesting. You know, I flip flop on that. When I first started writing, I had a lot of pointless weather. Then, I started to take it out. But, lately, I've put it back in. I think the weather can add interesting elements to the long as they add interesting elements to the story. If they have NO impact on the story, then it is probably pointless, or at least less pointful.

  13. Love the ostrich farm idea. So far I use bits and pieces of places I know, but scramble them together in my mind until the scene looks different. Does that make any sense?

  14. Michelle,

    I altered a well-known quote from "Conan the Barbarian" to fit my situation.

  15. Liza, That absolutely makes sense. I do that with characters all the time.

  16. On topic: I'm a world builder. I hope the work pays off, because it's a pain in the Rumpelstiltskin.

  17. I'd like to distinguish between "setting" and "world-building." I think I'm rather good at the latter, but rather poor at the former. At any rate, I spend a great deal of the time I call "writing" sitting around with D&D figurines world building. But then when I get right down to it, I end up with scenes in which the setting is reduced to: "Castle room. +5 sword is on the wall."

    I was really baffled in Dindi because I have a bunch of scenes set in various villages (clanholds) and in huts, and the dirt yards in front of huts, and I felt like, okay, once I've said it's a hut, what do I add? Huts are pretty boring. I've lived in them. I know. But that's quite a cop out. If I could just describe it right, I know it would come alive much better.

    I'm reading Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I'm struck by how evocative her settings are. There are some (to me) exotic elements of Bengali culture, that's not what strikes me. What strikes me is how she makes Boston seem exotic. As though it were a whole world I'd never have know existed except through her story.

    (This, btw, is why I don't like to write contemporary stuff. I feel like I'd screw up the details and someone would be able to check it against the facts.)

  18. Proust

    from The Guermantes Way, page 246

    "What artists call intelligence seems pure presumption to the fashionable world which, incapable of adopting the angle of vision from which they, the artists, judge things, incapable of understanding the particular attraction to which they yield when they choose an expression or draw a parallel, feel in their company an exhaustion, an irritation, from which antipathy rapidly springs."


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