Using Your Setting Well
I’m awful at writing description. It’s one aspect of my writing craft that I’ve been actively working on for the past few years because I know how important description and setting is in a story. I read other people’s books and marvel at how they not only describe a character’s surroundings but actually use setting as a character in the story. Some incredible stories not only do that but also use it to show the reader more about the character. Now that’s amazing writing!
So how do we do all that?
Well, let’s begin with just writing description. That’s the most basic part of all this. I try to imagine my characters in their setting. I play the movie in my head, seeing my characters move about and interact with the setting and each other. To go one step deeper (which I try to do while I’m writing my first draft, but frequently I add it in the second) I figure out what other senses I can use to experience this setting.
Is my character in a drawing room—as they so frequently are? If so, are there flowers somewhere in the room that would smell nice? Do the windows face the street? If so, perhaps noise from road can be heard. Is the damask sofa they’re sitting on soft and cushy or firm? What about the teacup that was just passed to them? Is it too hot to hold by anything other than the tiny little handle?
By writing all these details (not in a dump, but with small details spread out through the action and dialogue), I not only place my characters in their setting, but I make the world come alive for my readers. Even more interesting is the fact that I’m also telling my readers more about my characters as I describe this setting because we’re “seeing” it through my POV character’s eyes.
So, what’s important to my character? Are they waiting for someone to arrive and so very attuned to all the noises around them as they listen for the front door of the house to open? Are they hungry and therefore sensitive to any smells of food or baking? Are they poor and therefore amazed at the rich fabric of the sofa and the fine carpet on the floor? Perhaps they’re an artist and aware of the colors around them, how they blend or clash. There is so much to pull from and it all depends on who your character is so that you to know what they’ll see or notice.
Another idea to keep in mind when writing your setting is how you can integrate it, making it essential to the story. In so doing, you make the setting itself a character. It doesn’t need to move or say anything, but it can still evoke emotions in your characters. It can comfort them—curling up in a familiar bed, surrounded by pillows, running free across an open field or through a crowded wood, finding the largest potted plant in a ballroom and standing safely behind it. It can anger them or scare your characters. It can even grow with them.
Imagine the home you grew up in. It seemed so large when you were little. If you return to again after a long absence, it will seem to have shrunk because you have grown. But it doesn’t need to stay that way. As you re-acclimate to it, it’s size will become familiar again. One theme that many writers love to use is a character fixing up their home as they fix up their life—their surroundings reflect the rest of their life in physical form. You can do the same thing for a relationship (fixing a home as a relationship is mended). The ways you can use your setting as another character is nearly endless.
I use the setting of Calcutta in my book An Exotic Heir as a character letting it inform both my reader and my heroine. She learns who she is when she leaves the comfort of her home in London and explores the new and fascinating city. She expands her horizons personally even as she learns about Indian-English culture and the purely Indian history she finds in this new place. Once she returns once again to England she’s still learning about herself but when Calcutta follows her home, in the form of the hero, she realizes what’s truly important after all—love and honesty. But the heroine, Cassandra, couldn’t have come to this conclusion if it hadn’t have been for the setting around her.
With each book I write, I work on making the setting important either as a character on its own or as a way to show who my protagonists are. Is it something you work on? Something you use? Something you enjoy?