How to Create a Strong Setting to Balance Unforgettable Characters
Mary's post on Monday was wonderful. She started with an amazing opening about women running for escape, women running for their lives, for freedom, for a chance to get out from under the cruelty of an evil stepfather.
She drew me in instantly.
So I'm going to talk about setting today, a setting strong enough to embrace and support those unforgettable characters we work so hard to create.
I'm choosing contemporary settings... it's different for a historical because the setting is unique to the time. Current day settings are beset with modernisms and that changes things, something I've discovered as I'm prepping my early Love Inspireds for the indie market.
From "Rebuilding Her Life", book one of my final Love Inspired series "Kendrick Creek":
Jess Bristol sucked in a breath as she steered her rental car along mountain roads she hadn’t seen in years. Curve upon curve, the lush Appalachian forest floated by on her right while a winter valley stretched wide on her left. Beautiful. Bucolic. Pastoral.
But when she hugged a bend that took her further down the mountain, the Manhattan trauma doctor's breathing went tight for a different reason. The aftermath of the recent forest fire surrounded her. While some things had been completely consumed by the raging inferno, others had been randomly skipped over, leaving a tree here, bushes there. But not much had escaped the fire’s wrath along this stretch, and the sleepy mountain town below—her hometown—had taken a nasty hit.
The late December fire had started high in the hills and swept down, fed by a strong east wind. Around her, the remnants of that two-day blaze lay haphazard and dark against the fresh falling snow.
Burned trees and ash peppered what had been a pristine landscape. She’d seen the news reports and her mother had sent several pictures of the recent disaster that had besieged the area. But the photos hadn’t done it justice.
Devastation sprawled to her east, west and south. The fire’s path had traveled straight for Kendrick Creek, the Tennessee mountain town she’d called home for over two decades. From here she could see the swath of wreckage along this edge of the fire. It hadn’t burned the whole town, but it had ruined enough. In a little place like Kendrick Creek, it didn’t take much to have a huge effect.
This was this opening to the story.... You know Jess is a Manhattan trauma doctor, you know she was raised in a little Appalachian town and that she's coming home...
But it's the setting that takes the day and sets the stage. Destruction. Ruination. Remnants of a wind-fed fire that left homes, businesses, churches and Christmas decorations in rubble...
That opening setting has set a backdrop for the angst of the story. Whatever else happens, the reader knows that it occurs in the backdrop of disaster... leaving the story and the series ripe for redemption and renovation.
I've seen folks say "never start a story with weather..." I expect they mean rote weather, you know, this kind of thing.... "It was a cold, wet, rainy day. Gayla searched for her umbrella. She needed it. Otherwise she'd show up at work looking like a wet poodle because her hair always crinkled more in high humidity.
She'd left it in the car which meant that she needed to run a block down the road to get to the umbrella. And the car."
So let's re-do this opening to make the setting pop:
Not just any rain.
Stinking, pouring, drenching, pooling rain and when one lived in a busy city where folks selfishly parked their over-priced cars over the lines so normal people had to park a block away, a storm wasn't just an inconvenience. It was an entity.
Sprawling leafless trees bent in the wind. They weren't dancing. There was nothing Joyce Kilmer-poetic about these trees. They were angry. Pure and simple. Thrashing their arms to protest their lack of protection.
Her umbrella was right where she'd left it last week, on the back seat of the car. The car she'd parked over a block away. The umbrella was laying quite comfortably on the back seat. Safe. Warm. Dry.
The opposite of what she was about to be.
She had no choice but to make a run for it.
The wind tunneled, total Chicago, lashing her, soaking her. Strong enough it probably would have turned that cheapo umbrella inside out and then it would have joined the hundreds of other useless umbrellas dotting Chi-town's metro garbage pails every April.
She missed the green light at the corner and had to wait, chin tucked, eyes down as the north-south traffic hurried toward its destinations.
The light turned.
She knew better. She really did. She'd been working in the city for over three years, determined to make a name for herself, so she knew to look left then right before stepping down.
Her bad. And his, the guy who hurried through an almost red light, late for whatever.
The wall of water didn't just splash her.
It bathed her. Top to bottom. Stem to stern. Even inside the ugly boots. And she had absolutely no choice but to keep on going.
And after biting back some really bad words, that's exactly what she did.
So this is how I see setting. I see it as an integrated part of the scene, not something separate or generally poetic and descriptive. More like another character, action-packed, boring or soothing, the setting creates an imminent feeling in the reader.
Debby Giusti uses settings in her suspense novels and she does it beautifully. Whether it's the alleys of a city or the thickly forested hills, when Debby sets a scene, you feel the threat approaching, even if the scene is light... you know the shadows loom.
Setting is huge for reader satisfaction. Think of it as another character, a changing one, and don't over-sell it... make it work with and for the scene either as a villain...
Or a friend!
Multi-published, bestselling author Ruth Logan Herne is busily writing mysteries in her very snowy, cold Western New York home. She is enjoying the peace of winter because warmth brings work and Ruthy runs/owns a pumpkin farm with her husband... and that makes the quiet of winter a lovely thing! She loves to chat with readers and writers. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, swing by her Facebook page (although she is generally annoyed at social media, but she does love to share cookies, cakes and Ruthyisms!!!) or her website at ruthloganherne.com
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