Writing tips: Setting

Hey everyone,

For starters, happy new year! I, for one, am looking forward to 2021 with hope and optimism. 2020 felt like a very long year, in so many ways, and I am so glad it’s behind us. I’m wishing everyone reading this my sincerest wishes for a wonderful 2021.

It’s the first Monday of the month, so it’s a “Writing tips” blog post. Today, I’m talking about setting. For me, the setting is as critical as plot or character. In fact, when I was identifying storylines for The Found Child (see my post called “Writing tips: Storyline”), I pulled out the setting as one of the themes. Setting not only provides texture to a book, it also provides clues to a character’s inner and outer lives. Setting can be used to create tension. And, most importantly, it adds emotion.

Setting allows a reader to get inside a character’s head. It allows the reader to notice what the character is noticing. That external environment can reflect the character’s emotions. For example, in the first book in the Shelby McDougall series, Due Date, surrogate mom Shelby moves into an isolated cottage on the property belonging to the intended parents. I paid careful attention to the setting: the open expanse of meadow behind the cottage, the forest on the far side of the meadow, the meadow grasses, the breeze, the clouds and sky. Sunrises and sunsets. Rain and storms. I wanted to convey the vastness of her surroundings and how uncomfortable she felt living in that vastness. It kept her on edge and provided tension in the story.

Setting on a smaller scale can also provide tension and emotional impact. For example, in the various action scenes in the series, I tried to insert specific elements to allow Shelby to be in the action, inside her head, but also provide enough description to allow the reader to know what was happening externally. In The Stork, when Shelby is taken captive at gunpoint, I added texture to the scene through setting: I wrote about the trees, the birds calling, how the light was falling on the redwood canopy, the smells, and how small puffs of dust were kicked up with each step. I wanted her to notice the external world to slow down the scene and heighten her fear.

On a larger scale, I also used setting to convey atmosphere and location. I wanted to convey what makes Shelby’s area of the world unique. I found that to be easy on one level, and incredibly difficult on another. For example, the beach. What makes a beach unique? There’s the water, the waves, the shore, rocks, the sand. I had to dig, to come up with words and phrases to create a particular beach at a particular time of day in a particular place.

As I wrote these books, I discovered how easy it is to overuse setting. I’ve found that in early drafts of my books, and when I was first starting out as a writer, that I overused setting on a fairly consistent basis. Too much setting, too much detail, grinds a perfectly good scene to a dead stop. And I could only discern that overuse after letting a draft sit for a while. Sometimes, it would take several rewrites to see it. In some cases, my beta readers pointed it out.

What was most interesting to me was how setting became more intuitive as I grew as a writer. At first, I just thought of setting as location, placing the story in time and space. But as my skills improved, I was able to see setting in a different way, as a tool for emotion. When my writing coach, Mary Carroll Moore, read an early draft of Due Date, she was able to point out specific examples of how setting was well used, overused, or could be inserted for emotional impact. So helpful! To give you an idea of what I learned from her, check out her blog post called “Setting: The Best Way to Get Emotion into Your Stories”.

Until next time,

Nancy