Friday, May 27, 2016

Settings that Change Characters & Characters who Change Settings -- by Rachel

A setting that stands out in a story has these two elements

*  It changes the characters
 * It is changed by the characters

That is, like a character, it shapes and is shaped by the story.

How do settings change the characters? Here are just a few examples.

Rugged settings strengthen characters. The character is transported to a grueling environment. There, they find an inner strength they didn’t know they possessed. Think Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games or just about any WWII novel. Even Little House on the Prairie (the books, not the TV show).

Placid settings humanize and soften characters. Here, the ambitious character comes home again to Small Town, USA or the Wall Street banker finds himself working on a ranch where they’ll learn what life is really all about.

Foreign settings transform a character culturally. Here, historical sagas (The Far Pavilions, Voice in the Wind), sci-fi (Dune) and fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia) take a character to a new world, and just as any ordinary Joe or Jane will find they’re never quite all-American again once they spend a couple of years in Argentina or India, so it is with our character. They grow and learn to balance between two worlds.

 A new setting teaches a character who they are. Sometimes it’s magical. Hari of Blue Sword is just awkward until she is kidnapped and carried to the severe desert kingdom. There, she finds the magic she was born to coming alive. Sometimes, it’s realistic. In Brooklyn, Eilis simply learns what she’s capable of by moving from Ireland to a bustling American metropolis.

An old setting defines a character with ever-increasing tension. Whether it’s the sacred Jewish character of Hasidic Brooklyn in The Chosen or the passionate, family-oriented character of a small Georgia town in A Place to Call Home, as the novels progress, the character find out in ever-deepening ways how their settings claim and define them.

Of course, that’s just a small sampling of ways that setting can change character. How about the reverse – how can characters change setting?

Characters improve their setting. Sometimes, it's a big thing -- bringing a town to life in A Town Like Alice. Sometimes it’s just a small thing – a character restoring a rundown cabin or painting a room. As they make their setting more livable, the reader feels vicariously as if they’ve been given a do-over.  

Characters change the course of events that define the setting. That is, they change the course of a war or unjust colonization. Sometimes, they heroically bring goodness back to their home. But ever popular, especially in sci-fi, is the character who unwittingly sets a course for destruction to a story world – Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow.

Characters Humanize an Inhumane Setting. Whether it’s a musician playing their heart out in war torn Bosnia (The Cellist of Sarajevo) or an athlete who won’t be beaten down in a concentration camp (Unbroken), the character who lives well in spite of overwhelming odds turns a bleak setting into a place of hope. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Different Cultures, Historical Settings — by Christine

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 

No matter the setting of your novel, that setting is taken into the reader’s brain through their 5 senses: 

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Hearing


Last week I wrote on this sense for setting, probably the most evocative sense for the reader. 

Sight is a given; most writers know how to write what a setting looks like. But as you write, remember that you are building a world brick by brick, leaf by leaf in a forest, every pebble on your seaside. And, it is the use of all 5 senses that is the mortar keeping the bricks of your story world together. 

Building a world is reserved not only for science fiction or fantasy writers. True, writers of those genres must create an entire biosphere that is nothing like (or perhaps just a little like) the world we live in. But this is true also for the historical novelist, as they write about a setting that is long gone. And true for writers who want to set a story in another land, a land they’ve never set foot in.

This is where research becomes your best friend. For my British Raj trilogy I easily read around 200 books or more on British India. But for setting, I specifically researched other types of books, aside from political and historical tomes to gain historical facts, but to help me develop my story world, such as:


Through those same history books I discovered how that setting feels to the touch. I wanted to know how it feels to live in the shadow of an ancient palace that was built thousands of years ago, or close to a place where a great battle took place. I’d ask myself, “Does strolling past these artifacts on my character’s way to market or even in a modern day setting bring a certain texture to their fingertips as they brush past these edifices? How does it feel to take a taxi past something as magnificent as the Roman Colosseum?”  How do the cobblestones of a Dublin street feel beneath my characters’ footsteps?


Travel books were a great help to me in understanding how the setting feels against skin, cold, heat, texture of sand, surf, grass underfoot.

Setting is so much more than the flora and vegetation, more than mountains, deserts, jungles, woods, or sandy coasts. Setting is also about:


  • Jungle noises such as large predatory cats roaring in the night, cacophony of bird songs, insects buzzing.
  • Sand hissing on a desert floor.
  • Surf pounding a beach.
  • Wind whistling as it bleaches a white stretch of beach.
  • The jingle of taxi bells in a busy Indian market

Taste (Nice and not-so-nice)

Cookbooks (cooking aromas and tastes) Especially if you can find old cookbooks from a certain era. I lucked out the day I found an old British Raj cookbook from the 1800’s written for English women living in India.

But don't forget the not-so-nice tastes:

  • Diesel fumes from buses (how that horrid taste is in the mouth)
  • A bug flying into a character’s mouth
  • The 0verly strong taste of alcohol for a non-drinker.
  • The astringency of medicine, etc.

We don’t know what the past was like as far as the 5 senses, unless we read primary sources from those times, such as biographies and other historical or even a few environmental science journals.


Friday, May 13, 2016

The Scent of a Setting by Christine

The Perfume Maker, by Rodolphe Ernst

Readers read novels for an emotional experience. Something writers must never forget. One of the best tools for arousing emotion in a reader is the use of scent in a setting.

Nothing quite stirs us as much as:

  • aromas
  • odors 
  • perfumes 
  • traces
  • fragrances
  • hints
  • whiffs
  • stenches
  • reeks
  • smells
  • bouquets
  • sniffs
  • infusions
  • essences
  • stinks 
  • spices
  • aura
  • and so on.  

So many evocative terms for taking the setting in through our olfactory system, our sense of smell and letting it set up a visual image in our reader’s brain. I won’t bother with the science, we all know how a fragrance can wing us back to our early childhood, stir memories long forgotten.

During the edits of one of my British Raj novels, my editor suggested I vary the words for “smell”. With that suggestion a whole new world opened up to me in regards to setting. I believe it’s one of the reasons that series Twilight of the British Raj is so well received.

Here are some samples of my favorite scenes that use scent to set the setting.

Excerpt from Shadowed in Silk

The New Delhi sliced her way through the narrows of Kolaba Point, and the familiar scent of Bombay reached out to Abby. Laine was right. No sense worrying. Tucking a strand of hair into her chignon, she savored a tantalizing whiff of overripe fruit, roses, marigolds and cloves, mingled with the acrid smell of dust. 

Scent can also be portrayed in a setting as intimate as a man’s arms. As in this excerpt from Veiled at Midnight.

“She breathed in the clean scent of his cotton shirt as the sun set.”

One of my favorite quotes in Captured by Moonlight uses scent as a symbol for Christian character, and it was coined by an Indian Christian by the name of Sundar Singh who said,

A true Christian is like sandalwood, which imparts its fragrance to the axe which cuts it, without doing any harm in return.”

Add a whole new set of paints to your writing toolbox by opening up the box of scent.



Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing Settings with Personality: Five Questions to Ask Yourself -- by Rachel

The best books have settings that fix the book’s course. That is, the setting isn’t just beautiful or interesting. It has a personality – it could practically take a Meyers-Briggs personality questionnaire, and because it has a personality, it interacts with the characters and the storyline.

Whether it’s an enchanted forest, a Renaissance palace or modern Tokyo, if your setting is well drawn, it will have a character of its own. So, that’s your first question to ask yourself. What is the personality of your setting?

Perhaps it’s moody, like the castle perched on the craggy Scottish coastline in Winter Sea. And a little demanding, for the lashing waves draw the character into the story like a magnet.

Maybe, it’s bustling and friendly like Maeve Binchy’s collections set in modern-day Dublin or serene and restoring like an Amish novel.

The next question to ask yourself is: does your setting match the tone of your story? A moody and demanding setting is great if you’re writing Gothic or a complex historical, but not if you’re aiming for a sweet romance.

If your setting is a quiet New England village, and you’re aiming for the tension of a thriller, what can you add to mix in sinister characteristics? A ramshackle cottage, a deserted, winding road in front, a dense wood behind, perhaps. Some nervous citizens and a long, long drive to the next town, where help might be found. There are always details you can add to get the tone and personality you’re aiming for.

Third, what does your setting demand of the characters? If it has a temper of its own, a setting will demand something of the main characters. The arena in The Hunger Games or the uninhabitable planet in The Martian demand courage and genius since the stakes are life and death and the odds are long. In other stories, the demands will be more subtle. Brooklyn simply requires Eilis Lacey to learn the self-confidence necessary to thrive in her new home and to love New York as she once loved Ireland.

How does the setting twine itself around the character’s soul, and thus your reader’s? Often, the writer accomplishes this by tying setting to love. Claire, in Outlander, learns to love the 18th century Scottish highlands, despite its superstitions and the loss of everything modern, for one reason: she loves Jamie who belongs firmly in the 18th century highlands. And once she leaves, she mourns until she can return.

In The Lake House a country estate in Cornwall becomes the centerpiece of Alice’s life long after she leaves it, not only because of its beauty, but because it represents innocence and family. Those memories are made more poignant by loss as the novel progresses. That’s a key, isn’t it? There is something about loss (of setting, of love) that seals a setting’s importance.  

Of course, none of these would work without the last question: What are the details of your setting? How will you paint the setting so the reader feels like he/she is there? Which details? Which senses? Preferably all five. The details matter, since it is in the details that you capture the setting’s personality and your reader.

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