The Importance of Setting in a Novel

UPDATE: This blog post won an award for “media post” at the 2015 LUW writers conference.

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Write what you know. How many times have I heard that? Oh man, probably at every conference I have ever gone to, multiple times.

I know setting.

Long before I was ever an author, I would surround myself in settings which filled my soul with wonder. I would cover my limbs and face with autumn leaves to feel the smell. I would spend many nights under the stars, listening to the scurrying of little animals and the sounds of wind applauding my appreciation through the trees. The stillness would settle in my heart and when I began to bring pen and paper with me to different settings, my world became magical.

To me, setting should breathe like a character. It isn’t just streets, buildings, and names of towns — it is the lifeblood which weaves your characters and plot together. It shouldn’t be tacked in, but rather an integral part of the story. It grounds the reader.

It should also ground the author. The author carries the responsibility to bring details that are often overlooked. Especially, in my opinion, when it comes to nature.

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Pilot and Index Peak – Cooke City, Montana

Recently, I returned from a long trip through Montana and Yellowstone. I have visited many times and even lived there at one point. Those wild, rustic places are some of my favorite spots in the world and I felt the heavy burden to show my love for it in one of my novels. I hadn’t been up there for over a dozen years and I started creating the setting for my novel through memory. When I had finished my book, I was satisfied. But something tugged at me to visit those places again. Either my wild heart, or the pull to immerse myself in those mountains.

Arming myself with laptop, pens and journals, I was ready to take my story to battle and add details that were missing and change a few things. I was surprised when I came home and realized that I had never even written one word when I had surrounded myself in the nature I so dearly love. Why? It wasn’t a conscious decision by any means, but looking back, my body and soul yearned to feel the lifeblood of the setting. I didn’t need to muddle it with words, I needed to experience it and let the setting wash through me.

In this world where setting and placement are so often overlooked or replaced with handheld devices that capture our attention, authors need to work harder to ground the reader. We need to scream at our readers to notice detail. It breaks my heart every time I see someone surrounded by stunning scenery and their faces are aglow with the pale light of a handheld device.

Here are a few ways you can bring your setting to life in your novel, followed by some examples I have written.

*Be specific – it isn’t only a flower, describe the details. example: The vibrant purple petals stretched beneath an indigo hat which drooped over a white lip and a yellow bearded pouch. (Calypso Orchid)

*Sprinkle in similes and metaphors to connect – example: His temper was like a loose cannon. It could explode at any given time and I would be the set target.

*Use the senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, feel – This one is huge! I love to incorporate the senses. – example: My stomach was empty, which was good, because the smell hit me, and I heaved once more against the vacant remains of my belly. The putrid, decaying stench of rotten flesh made my eyes water.

*Show, don’t tell – instead of stating that its raining, describe the dripping trees, the puddles gathering in the crevices of rock, and the pattering on tin resembling tinkling bells.

Here is an excerpt from my novel Broken Smiles. The setting is in China, another one of my favorite places. I hope you can feel my love for it as you read my words.

Here and there rocks were covered with ancient moss. Orchids blossomed spontaneously upon the trees. Vines hung like ropes and twine, twisting upon the rubber and the banyan trees. Bamboo stood proudly against the moonlight, casting shadows that had been the same for thousands of years. Away from big city lights and pollution, it was easy to be transported back in time to ancient China. This land had managed to remain untouched throughout the different emperors and dynasties. As they walked, they passed a small ancient graveyard built against the hillside. The limestone shrines glowed mysteriously in the moonlight. Chinese characters and mini-sculptures were carved in the pale rock. Incense smoldered on the top of an old gravestone…

Thanks for stopping by –

Tara

Words for a Headstone

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Words for a headstone

A painting I created for my friend.

A few years ago, I received a birth announcement from a good friend with a darling photo of a newborn. It was also a death announcement. This sweet infant only lived a few short moments as her complications were too great.

At the same time I was going through a hard time in my life. Suddenly, my own trials and heartaches seemed very small in comparison.

Sometimes I gather words, other times I gather art supplies . . . and then I let my heart bleed on either canvas or journal. This time I decided to pick up my watercolors and create something for my friend. With each stroke of the paintbrush, and each line of my pen, I thought a lot about the different trials people are faced with. I thought about my friend, I thought about eternity, and children, and life. These are questions that conjure within me usually while I am deep into the trees and mountains, far removed from people. But at the time, I was living in the desert and I felt trapped, both mentally and physically. I realized I was living day to day, without stepping back and looking at the majestic view before me. Even if that view was of rocks, sand, and prickly plants.

Because I am a lover of literature, I dwelled on the words I wanted to use in this painting for a long time. I asked myself, what would comfort me? Finally, I sketched in “Life and Love are Eternal.” Because, well, I think that they are.

I framed the painting, then sent if off with a sympathy card. My friend contacted me and told me that it brought tears to her eyes when she opened it.

A couple years after this experience, I received another birth announcement from my same friend. I was thrilled to see that through her dark clouds she was able to get pregnant again. Along with the announcement, she enclosed a note that reads. “I had struggled forever with what to put on my baby’s headstone. I wanted something positive and pretty. I used your words. So, thank you again for your painting and words. They will forever be on her headstone and I’ll forever remember your kindness.”

I am honored to have inspired words for a headstone.

Tara

p.s. I asked my friend if I could write about this before I posted it.