Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wherever You Go...Is Important!

So as I sit here at my dining room table—a few months ago we talked about where we like to write, and I usually spend my mornings sitting at the dining room table—I’m looking out the French doors at the snow falling. I’m not a big snow person. While I like the actual white stuff, I hate driving in it, and I have this unreasonable dread of school being cancelled. That could be because we went through two weeks of either no school or hardly any school due to Hurricane Irene, just came off a 4-day weekend for Thanksgiving, and I don’t think we’ve had more than three full weeks of school this year, but I digress. I do actually like the look of the snow, once there’s enough of it on the ground to cover all of the grass, and before it turns black from the passing cars.

Anyway, watching the snow fall made me think of the importance of your setting in your story. Action carries you through; characters give you someone to love or hate; but setting? Setting puts the reader in your story. It gives them a chance to visit the place you’re writing about, to travel to an imaginary world. Think about the classic books you read growing up. I was not a fan of Willa Cather or of John Steinbeck—too depressing for me—but they created a South and a mid-West that sticks with me today. My daughter just finished reading a book, Ruined, by Paula Morris, and because of that book, she wants to go to New Orleans. It’s not just travel books that create “place;” it’s novel and romances and westerns and mysteries, too. It’s fiction and settings are important.

I’ve been told that starting out a book with a description of a physical place is not the best hook, and maybe that’s right. But I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to do either. It’s a great way to incorporate many of the senses. If done well, and I’m not saying I’ve necessarily done that, it can put the reader inside the story, can sit them on the shoulder of your character, or in the corner of the room.

Here’s the opening of my WIP, which currently starts with describing the setting. I’m not necessarily going to leave it as the opening. I see the positives and negatives of doing this, and I’m still deciding. But I love the description and had fun writing it.

Samara ducked into the corner grocery store and swiped rain-drenched hair out of her eyes as she looked out at the street. Rain poured onto the Manhattan sidewalk in silver satin sheets. Cars splashed water onto the ankles of passersby with enough force to soak through the pant legs of irritated men and puddle inside the high-heeled shoes of unprepared women caught in the storm. Umbrellas prodded one another for space as people rushed from offices to subways, huddled in doorways and flagged down already full taxis in futile efforts to avoid the rain. Muttered curses at the weather mingled with hoarse apologies as commuters bumped against one another in their hurry to get somewhere—anywhere—dry. But those sounds were muted by the shuck-shuck-shuck of windshield wipers and the squeal of brakes on slippery streets.

The water poured down the front window of the store and blurred the sharp headlights of the passing cars into fuzzy, undulating splotches of yellow that danced before her eyes. She smiled. They reminded her of Shabbat candles. She closed her eyes for a moment and time slipped away. In an instant, she was back in her grandmother’s warm, dry kitchen, her face pressed against a wide, warm bosom. The arms circling her promised safety, security and unconditional love. Her grandmother’s heartbeat thumped against her ear and infused her with calm and confidence. Her cousins chattered and the grownups laughed. China and utensils clinked. It was Friday night; the smell of brisket and challah filled the small, noisy apartment with mouth-watering scents of carrots, onions, garlic and yeast. Her stomach growled and the sound yanked Samara back to the present. She was hungry. With a shake of her head, she reached for a shopping cart and headed down the aisle.

Forgetting for a moment that I wrote this, because I’ll admit, I’m biased, I like detailed descriptions of setting. I want to know where my characters are and why their location is so important. For this character, one of the things this particular setting does is bring her back to her childhood. That serves to tell the reader some important things, one of which is that she’s Jewish. Since the story I’ve written is a romance that takes place around the Jewish holiday of Purim, it’s important the reader knows this. This setting conveys warmth. It also gives the feel of New York City; anyone who’s been there in the rain can probably recognize it.
I don’t know, maybe I’m biased toward my own writing. But regardless of these particular paragraphs, I do feel giving the setting early on, if not immediately, is important. What do you think and how do you do it?


  1. This is where film beats the printed page, IMO. Your opening paints a vivid visual, ideal for the opening montage of a film, Jen. (On a film set, they would spray water from sprinklers--raindrops are usually too fine to be picked up by a camera.)

  2. It's a great description, Jen, full of images, sounds and smells. As Ana said, it would work perfectly for a film, but I'm not 100% sure it's right for the start of a book. Maybe you could break it up into shorter paragraphs i.e. more 'white space' on that first page!

  3. This really puts us right in the scene. I love it!

    I usually start with an action, but make sure that I give a description of the setting within the first page to ground the reader.

  4. Okay, didn't actually mean to turn this into a critique of my paragraphs, although I do appreciated the opinions. Was hoping to generate a discussion about setting in general, regardless of where you first mention it.

  5. In response to that then, I think sometimes the setting is an integral part of a story (as in my novel set in Egypt for example), but in other stories, the location may not actually matter very much. However, wherever you decide to set it, I think you need to give your reader at least a flavour of the setting. I've set my current WIP in a Lake District village, because it happens to be an area I know well, but I could actually have set it in a village anywhere in the the UK. My main problem is that many American readers don't really understand the concept of a UK "village" as compared with a town or township (but that's another issue completely!)

  6. But I think your main problem demonstrates exactly why setting is so important. The setting provides the flavor and anchors your characters to a place so that the reader can understand where your story takes place. For example, your West End is very different from our Broadway. If I imagine your characters on Broadway, I'll have a general idea of your story, but not a specific one and may miss out on the true feelings you were trying to convey.

  7. The difference between the West End and Broadway is basically the difference between London and New York. I'm lucky in that I've been to both - and to other places I've used in my novels (apart from Iceland - had to rely on google for that!)
    I once tried to explain to one of my American friends what an English village is like, but she still insisted it was a 'small town' whereas to us Brits there is a world of difference between a town (even a small one) and a village. In the end, I gave up! It's not so much the description, it's the concept that proves to be the main problem.

  8. I grew up reading a series of books that took place in a small English village. Based on the description, I do understand the difference, although I'd have a tough time describing it verbally. The setting and the descriptions used by the author, who's name I can't remember right now, helped me understand it.