Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Setting

Stories Yet To Be WrittenOver the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about the new contemporary romance, tentatively titled Second Chances, that I’ve been working on (when I need a break from working on revisions to The Traitor, of course).  If you missed the first two posts you can catch up on them here and here.

Rather than just winging it and hoping everything will work itself out by the end of the book, I’ve been looking at the story element by element, trying to put a strong foundation in place. My hope is that doing this work up front, before starting to write, will result in less re-writing and frustration further down the line. Fingers crossed for that.

After a few weeks of brainstorming I have the characters and the conflict fairly well defined, so now it’s time to move on to the next story element.

This week my focus is on: Setting

That seems pretty easy, right? Well, it would be if setting only referred to the physical location of the story, but it’s a bit more than that. According to the definition in Wikepedia:

“In works of narrative the element setting includes the historical moment in time and geographic location in which a story takes place, and helps initiate the main backdrop and mood for a story.”

A little googling turned up a number of helpful sites with additional things to consider when defining the setting of a story.

Time

The time period your story is set in can have a big influence on your plot and the actions of your characters. My previous book, The Traitor, was set during the Regency period, which impacted the way my characters spoke and dressed, as well as the available technology (or lack thereof), societal expectations, and even how my hero and heroine interacted with each other.

In addition to the time period for the story as a whole, there is also the time of day for the individual scenes. Are things happening during the day or at night or a combination of the two? Characters may act differently depending on the time of day and each time offers its own opportunities for things to happen.

Second Chances is a contemporary story, but there are not a lot of things in it that are technology-specific or that reference any particular social or political events, so I don’t have to narrow it down too closely. So far, the time period is “kind of now.”  As for the timing of the scenes, they are a mix of day and night, but I’m noticing that the scenes set after dark are the ones that have more impact on the plot than the day-time ones. Not sure what that means, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

Duration

The duration of the story is the amount of time that elapses from the beginning until the end. A story may be time constrained (i.e., 48-hours to save a hostage) or may unfold over an extended period.   Whatever the duration, the passage of time needs to be reflected in the story.  Part of determining the duration is determining if the story is going to be set at a specific time of year or around a specific holiday or event. A historical novel about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his march to France, for example, would have a duration of 100 days or less and the time of year would be somewhere between February 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

Second Chances started out set around August, but as events in the story unfolded, I found I need to move the starting point earlier. My hero works in construction, so the major events of the story need to occur during clear-dry-working-on-the roof kind of weather. The overall duration of the story is almost a year, but Act II has a time constraint of about a month. When looking at the structure, I have been playing with a four-seasons approach, so that may adjust the timing a little further.

Place

Where physically is the story located? Big city? Farm? On a cruise ship in the Mediterranean? Once you decide on the place, then you need to consider the details about that place that you want to include in your story in order to bring the setting to life for your reader.

Second Chances starts out at a beach house I. Well, I thought it started out at a beach house, but after searching for just the right image of a beach house, I decided that perhaps it was a lake house instead. The beach houses just didn’t have enough trees. Wherever the house finally turns out to be, I know it has at least two stories and there is an upper balcony. I know the smell of the flowers around the front porch (which, of course, has a porch swing), as well as the sound of the water (that beach or lake is pretty close). I also know that the house has been in the family for generations, so who knows that might turn up in the attic. The scenes that occur at the house have no interaction with the surrounding people/area, so I don’t (yet) need to worry about defining those. The rest of the scenes take place in a city. I’m still deciding exactly what that should be like.

Weather

Weather can help set the mood for your characters and your readers. A story that begins with “It was a dark and stormy night” is going to give a completely different feel than one that begins “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.” The weather can also impact your characters. Do they wind up snowed in at a cabin or maybe trapped together when a storm takes out the electricity.

Details

Once you’ve decided on all the elements of the setting, you need to decide which details are going to help make it come alive for your readers. I’ve spent that last week or so searching the internet for pictures that reflect my setting. Next time I’m feeling crafty, I may turn them into a collage, but for now they are stored in a folder on the computer. I’ve also put together a soundtrack for this story, to help trigger the emotional aspects of the setting. When it comes time to put words on the page, I’m hoping the images and soundtrack will bring my setting to life for me, so that I can create a vivid backdrop for my characters.

I’m planning to use Second Chances as my NaNoWriMo story this year, so we’ll see how all of this character, conflict, and setting planning works out. I’ll be sure to report on my progress when November is over.

For further reading about setting, check out this WikiHow article about defining the setting for a story or this Writer’s Digest post on the basic elements of setting a story.

So, as a reader, what kinds of settings do you like? Do you have a favourite? Are there things that really make a setting come alive for you?

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Setting

  1. Are you also going to plan out your storyline in detail before November (to go along with the character, conflict and setting work you’ve done) – or are you more of a pantser? I’ve just done a detailed outline for the first time and am now a complete convert.

    • Rachel – I kind of pantsed my way through my first book, but I definitely prefer to have an outline in place. I will be doing my best to get my storyline into an outline (as detailed as possible) before NaNo starts so I don’t wander off and get distracted along the way.

  2. I think when a writer really knows and loves her/his setting, it shines through in the book. The setting/time period almost becomes a character in the book, and can sometimes drive the plot in strange and wonderful ways. The politics of a world can also be an important part of the setting.

    I don’t generally like being bludgeoned by loads of infodump about politics. Jane Austen doesn’t do this at all in *Pride and Prejudice* yet . . . if it weren’t for the war and politics, the evil Wickham would have never showed up in Derbyshire in gorgeous regimentals.

    I think it’s easier for an author to avoid political infodump in a contemporary, just because every living at that time has encountered the political climate to some extent or another. I think the trick when writing a historical is to weave those politics in just like one would with a contemporary.

    In the time period I’m working with, the US was adventuring in the Philippines, and women were starting to join the workforce in larger numbers, and getting less-physical jobs. Technology was growing by leaps and bounds, and it was a time of scientific miracles. (-: I don’t know how the Philippines fit into my book, but those other things are really important to my story.

    • Michaeline – I think you are right about it being easier to avoid political infodump in a contemporary if your readers have encountered the political climate already. Then it only takes a few details to call to mind the setting. Your time period sounds a bit more challenging, but sounds like it will provide a great backdrop for your story.

  3. One element of setting that can make a significant difference (at least for me) is the addition of “extraneous” characters. In a way it’s the opposite of the Checkhov’s gun; I want the protagonist/narrator to interact with people who don’t move the plot ahead, who speak their lines and aren’t ever heard from again, but who *do* reveal aspects of the setting.

    Is your character well-loved by the community? Is he viewed with suspicion or contempt? Don’t tell me; SHOW me.

    • Scott – that’s a great way to have those “walk-on” characters actually play a real part in the story. I’m going to keep an eye out in my reading and see if I notice examples.

      As for the “show not tell” – you’re preaching to the choir (though some of us may have a little trouble holding a tune). 🙂

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Outline | Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Actually Writing | Eight Ladies Writing

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Doing the Research | Eight Ladies Writing

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