A Novelist's Secrets For Writing Unforgettable Settings
I’ve always been most taken with novels in which setting is a character that has a life of its own. Whether it’s Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 1940s Barcelona, Dennis Lehane’s Boston, or Cormac McCarthy’s American Southwest, a novel steeped in place engages me far more than a novel in which the setting feels generic, flat, or, worse, an afterthought, whatever other strengths that novel may have.
Being a fan of such settings, I work hard to create them in my own novels. I am not alone. Many writers I’ve worked with one-on-one or through MFA programs at Emerson College and the University of Virginia work hard at setting. Yet, often, the settings in manuscripts I’ve had the privilege of reading as an instructor, coach or fellow writer often fall flat, even when they have wonderful details.
What I’ve found undermines writers most is the belief that detail alone creates a good setting. Here are three key tactics to keep in mind when trying to write settings that readers can’t forget:
1 ) Create emotion through your details.
Often what makes a setting flat, no matter how lovely or original the details may be, is when there is no emotional, physical, or mental connection between those details and the character. Without some consistent connection between the setting and the characters, there is no connection for the reader. Details alone create only a flat, 2-dimensional world — much like a fake backdrop to stage play — if they do not impact or engage the characters.
To elevate your setting, and make it come alive, think about how the details you choose affect the character. What does your character feel and think about the setting, how do her surroundings impact her emotions and inner life?
Here is how I handled an early scene involving setting in my new novel THE SILENT GIRLS:
Rath drove north on his dirt road, past the enormous, looming, granite face of Canaan Monadnock, which gave way to flat farmland with the abruptness of the Fundy Escarpment smacking up to the Atlantic’s edge; a geologic anomaly in a state of worn, aged mountains that folded into gentle foothills and gradually leveled out into Lake Champlain to the west and the Connecticut River to the east.
As a boy, Rath had been fascinated by this peculiarity and spent nights tucked under his covers, his sister asleep in her bed beside his, enrapt by books on plate tectonics, volcanoes, and the Earth’s molten core …Those early years, Rath had been obsessed with the violence of nature and how it shaped the physical world. As he’d grown older, his fixation had shifted from the violence of nature to the nature of violence, and how to stop it.
When settings trigger your characters’ thoughts, memories and emotions, the setting becomes a character that engages other characters, and thus the reader. Think about what details you can use that will create that engagement.
2) Are your details “just right”?
What makes a detail “just right”? Because of how the human brain works writers most often write from general to specific in early drafts. It is most often a mistake to think the first details we create are just right. When we keep these early details, the overall impression is often a setting that lacks our own singular specificity, because we’ve not yet to dig deeper into our imaginations. My first image or detail is often a holding place for me to re-think what detail would be “just right.” Ask yourself, “Have I read a similar version of this before…” about the natural world or a cityscape I am inventing. Then ask: What do I know about this place, what small but specific detail can I use to make readers feel they are being taken on a tour by an expert with an insider’s track on Boston, the Vermont Northwoods, or Barcelona? Don’t be the bus tour that hauls around thousands of tourists on the main roads of tourist traps; be the insider who gives readers a glimpse of a place in a way they’ve never known. Surprise them.
3) Use all fives senses
So often we rely on the sense of sight for details of setting. Yet the sense of smell creates the deepest connection to emotions and memory. While visuals are fine, expand your use of senses. How does a place smell, taste, sound, and feel? Dig down to express each of these senses specific to your setting then figure out how those sensory details affect your characters, and how the character might think or feel about such sensory impressions. Your settings, and your novel, will be better for it.
Eric Rickstad’s taut, chilling literary crime novels strip back the bucolic veneer of rural America and root around in its tragic underbelly. His first novel Reap was a New York Times Noteworthy Book first published by Viking Penguin. His novel THE SILENT GIRLS, from HarperCollins, was published October 28, 2014. His short stories and articles have appeared in many magazines and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia where he was a Hoyns Fellow and a Corse Fellow. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter, and is represented by Philip Spitzer of the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency.