Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Spectacular Settings mean Spectacular Reads

Hi there!

This week I'm introducing our first challenge with Yolanda and me at the helm. We will be taking it in turns to host challenges and this first one is one that I've been wanting to do for a long time.

Spectacular setting at the tip of New Caledonia
Writers have their strengths and weaknesses. Writing a story, especially a full-length novel, requires many components to make it work. There's the story idea which develops into the Premise, there's those characters that pop up into your head, introduce themselves, and help you tell their story, then there's conflict, because things can't go easy for these characters or the story will be boring to most--so this leads to plot points where there should be at least 3 in a novel. But all of these pale if we forget one thing--the setting. There has to be a backdrop to add more intrigue, exoticism, beauty or terror to your story. This is my favourite aspect of writing--I come up with the setting first, then the characters people this setting.

So, does it matter where your story unfolds? Yes! Here are some points about setting:
  1. Your setting can help reveal your characters and plot (think Harry Potter and friends--the settings add so much to the plot)
  2. Setting is far more than place--it establishes a story's mood, feeling and historical era. 
  3. Setting gives your story veracity--the truer your setting, the more believable the fictional world you invite your reader to enter. (The old write-what-you-know thingo.)
Now that we have the theory out of the way, how about we look at some different aspects of setting.

We need to choose details that are right for our particular story. Think Scout Finch in the opening pages of Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM).
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
In this brief paragraph, Lee sets the stage for all that follows by her accuracy of setting.

Reading the above paragraph, we can see how Lee sets the mood for her novel. It's going to be full of slow, hot days, during which even the slightest of movements will take effort.

Let's look at Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep to see how a different mood is created.
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
You might disagree that Chandler's excerpt is about setting. Maybe you just think it's about his wardrobe of the day. But there's the precise time (11am, mid-October), the weather, Marlowe's voice, character and point of view, and the setting (Marlowe's calling on four million dollars). It sets us right in the scene.

Even if your story's not a mystery, you can establish questions in a reader's mind via your setting. Check this excerpt from a short story by Lisa Lenard-Cook entitled 'Wild Horses.'
Neighbors watched for her little pickup along the country road. Sometimes Althea would pull over, or not pull over, and stop. Janet Kendall once found her sitting on her tailgate in the middle of the road just over a rise, had slammed on her brakes and skidded to a dusty halt just short of the rear bumper. 
We get that something's not quite right with Anthea, but we don't yet know.We see that it's a country setting and we expect to find out what it is about Anthea as we read on.

Think just about anything by Stephen King. He lulls readers into a false sense of security by his every-day openings. Also, re-look at TKAM where Lee practically rocks us to sleep.

Setting includes time as well as place. Don't you get a sense of Maycomb being sometime in the past, and Chandler's dressed-to-the-nines private investigator being in a more elegant time period?

Here's a few lines from Judith Freeman's Red Water.
We landed at the port of Boston and traveled across country by train, in boxcars fitted out with special seats, reaching Iowa City on July 5th. With the help of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, which advanced us much-needed money for our journey, we were able to secure a place with the Willy Handcart Company, and although it was late in the year to begin the crossing of the plains, our party was anxious to set out, for nothing less than Zion awaited us in the mountains in the west.
This selection establishes voice (nineteenth-century phrasings) and mood (anticipation, fear, longing), as well as its historical period. 

Setting is enhanced through a point of view character's eyes, creating an immediate connection with the reader.

Two examples: George Eliot's Adam Bede and Shield's Unless.
1. It is a very fine old place, of red brick, softened by a pale powdery lichen, which has dispersed itself with happy irregularity, so as to bring the red brick into terms of friendly companionship with the limestone ornaments surrounding the three gables, the windows and the door-place...
2. On a December morning I went walking hand in hand with Tom in the Orangetown cemetery...The cold weather had broken, and the tops of the old limestone monuments, sun-plucked in their neat rows, were shiny with melting snow.
1. The setting is reported as if it were a gift from author to reader. This is accomplished by using vague adjectival clauses ('very fine'), 'happy irregularity' and lacklustre verbs like 'is', 'has'.

2. The vivid point of view first person narrative, we are looking at one thing, rows of gravestones. Even the limestone seems clearer to the reader.

Setting is always clearer when viewed from one pair of eyes, rather than an omniscient third person point of view.

So, when you're creating a setting, don't settle for the tried and trite. Make your setting work for you and for your story.

I'm hoping this blog post sets the scene nicely for our upcoming challenge on August 19th!

Couldn't resist reading the first chapter of Harper Lee's 'To Set a Watchman' available here online if you missed it!

Here's the first paragraph. Check out the setting. Don't we get a similar feel as the familiar voice of Harper Lee draws us into the landscape:

Image for the news resultSince Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.
Here is a link to a Writers Digest article on SETTING.

So watch for August 5th, when the link-up for our inaugural challenge, Spectacular Settings, will fire up!

Don't forget to share the Challenge
We'd love it if you'd Tweet one of these:

Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge for August 19 @DeniseCCovey & @YolandaRenee join the fun #WEPFF

Do you know an unbelievable place or a Spectacular Setting. Share it with us @DeniseCCovey and @YolandaRenee #WEPFF

Join the Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge August 19 - Prizes awarded @DeniseCCovey  & @YolandaRenee #WEPFF


  1. Thank you for that information, Denise. It certainly helps.

    1. I'm glad of that Sally. Can't wait to see what you come up with.

  2. Some great points Denise!
    I'm quite excited about the theme, even though I've NO IDEA what I'm going to write.
    What I HAVE been thinking about, is your suggestion of incorporating haiku into my WEP entry. Something like poetic prose? I wonder...
    I'm off to think about the possibilities...

    1. We used to call Adura Ojo's entries Prosetry Michelle. So good. I'm sure you will impress us!

  3. Hi Denise
    Great post with excellent examples. I'm reading Game of Thrones. George is long winded about everything. I still cannot visualize the 'wall' between the realm of man and the wildlings. I'm on book, while he is a good author and description abounds, he could have used some input from a critique group. I can only hope that mine own description is good.

  4. Hi Denise
    Great post with excellent examples. I'm reading Game of Thrones. George is long winded about everything. I still cannot visualize the 'wall' between the realm of man and the wildlings. I'm on book, while he is a good author and description abounds, he could have used some input from a critique group. I can only hope that mine own description is good.

    1. Game of Thrones is not my style Nancy but hats off to the world building! It's all about the story there not the telling. Hats off to you wading through George's prose!

  5. I love the elegance and precision of the examples you have selected.
    I loathe and detest settings which are shovelled on, and those which employ clumsy symolism. Which is probably part of the reason I never warmed to Thomas Hardy.

    1. Thomas Hardy, oh wow. Certainly remember his settings.

  6. Very good article, Denise, saving it up!

    And shall tweet all of those in the coming weeks-- I hope I'm one of the first ones to sign up for the challenge.

    (My wordpress blog linked here is current now-- the Blogger one is on hiatus for a while.)

  7. I love the focus on details in the examples. A great read as always.

    See you soon :)

  8. I could have sworn I commented here when I signed up, but obviously not! Now I have.

    1. Heh Lee. I think you commented on the next post, the sign up one! Anyhoo, lovely to have you!

  9. Hi Denise! This is wonderful information about one of my favorite aspects of writing...and one I feel I struggle with! I'm not sure if I'll be back to blogging in time for THIS challenge, but I'll definitely be back for the next one! It's been a long hiatus this summer, but I'm read :) Happy to see the challenge is back!


    1. I'm glad you liked it Jen. If you don't make it for this challenge, maybe you'll be back for the Halloween challenge that Yolanda is organising. Lovely to hear from you. :-)

  10. "Setting as Mystery"
    In the quote from the book, you speak of Althea; in your following comment, she has become Anthea.
    Which is it? Proof-reading is so important...

    1. Sure River proofreading is so important, but I can understand how I got these two names confused. Althea is correct.

      Sorry. I'm very red faced.

  11. Just a quick note to say thank you to both of you. As I explore people's contributions to Spectacular Settings I have been awed and delighted. And amazed.

    1. Yes, hasn't it been beyond amazing EC? I've loved reading everyone's entries--so different, yet so much the same in what we like! Thank you for your wonderful contribution! :-)

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