Thursday, September 16, 2010

Getting the Setting

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Right now, we're experiencing the change seasons, something that was so subtle in Orlando, that I always said there were two seasons there: Summer and February 3rd. But as I type this, I'm looking out the window at the aspen trees.

They've been going from green to gold over the last week, standing out in stark contrast to the dark green pines. Not long ago, they were just getting their leaves.

Setting. I love being in the book with the characters. I may not have ever been to that location, but I want to think that if I ever did visit that locale, it would feel like I'm coming back to somewhere I've been.

When we left Los Angeles for Miami back in the dark ages, the television show CHiPs was popular. (Note-I didn't say it was good). We watched it primarily to get glimpses of the city we'd just left. We also laughed at the way Ponch and John would bike from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley in a matter of minutes.

Other television shows claim to be set in one city, while they're actually filmed somewhere else. I started writing fanfiction based on the Highlander television series, which was supposed to be set in the Seattle area, but was filmed in Vancouver (simplification here, because by contractual arrangements, they also filmed a number of episodes in Europe). At any rate, the city was known as "Seacouver" – at least to fans.

Regardless, if you're familiar with the alleged setting of a show, it's likely you'll recognize the stock shots as realistic, while things like buildings, sky (Los Angeles rarely has bright blue skies), and local flora might give away their actual whereabouts.

In a book, if I'm familiar with the setting, I love following the characters. That's half the reason I devour Michael Connelly's books set in Los Angeles. I'm right there at the Farmer's Market with Harry Bosch.

If you're writing a book set outside your normal domain, what do you do? You can go to Google maps and get street images. I did this for one of my books where I needed to get a character from point A to point B, and wanted to make sure the streets actually went there. But what about the flavor of the location?

If a book is set in Florida, I darn well expect there to be references to the climate. It's a major player in the lifestyle there. True, buildings are air conditioned—but what happens when a character steps outside? Instant steam bath. Are wardrobes climate appropriate? How does your heroine deal with the frizzies?

For Finding Sarah, I created a town in Oregon, set outside Salem. I'd visited there, and had the good fortune to have a cooperative sister-in-law who would set me straight on things like what trees would be blooming in May when Sarah walked down Main Street. I checked the Farmer's Almanac for the right constellations.

I set Nowhere to Hide in Orlando, and made use of a lot of places I'd visited to add depth to the story. I also made sure that it took my characters the right amount of time to get from one place to another. What's in a Name? went from the mountains to Chicago to just outside Champaign. I'd been to the mountains, and knew enough to make the first scenes realistic. My daughter went to school in Champaign-Urbana and lived near where my characters ended up. I'd visited, and could ask her for help. For the Chicago settings, I asked a fellow RWA chapter member who used to live there. In Hidden Fire, Randy and Sarah went to Arcata and Eureka. I'd been to both places, and used my experience plus a little extra Googling of a campus map to make sure things were as accurate as possible for Sarah's campus tour.

For the manuscript I'm working on now, I'm using all my new experiences in this mountain community. I'm drinking it up, and actually have to cut back, because although setting is important, it shouldn't dominate the story (unless you're writing something where the setting IS the story, of course). So when I see great characters, or overhear great lines, I have to make sure they're not going to upstage my hero and heroine.

But, I'm still trying to work in what I overhead when we were out for coffee one Sunday… "Hey, how's the cow birthing going?" That's something you don't hear in Orlando!

What are your thoughts on setting? Do you like it? Are you bothered by "mistakes?" Do you enjoy lots of description, or does it bog down the story?

Come back tomorrow -- we're going to Egypt!


Joyce Henderson said...

Great subject, Terry. Without setting characters become those infamous talking heads. Authenticity is important, too. If the author gets it wrong there's bound to be a reader who knows better...and readers talk!

In the case of inside setting, I use setting to tell the reader what type of person a character is. I've done classes and/or written articles about it. Take the same character, put her in, say, her bedroom, then proceed to tell the reader if she's a neat-nik or careless with her belongings. It's a dandy way to use props, etc.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

I love when setting leaves a place open to me. If I know a place enough to catch a mistake I probably let it go because it is fiction.
Overdone description is why I had a problem with the classics in school. ADD makes it hard to focus in those situations.

Terry Odell said...

Joyce - good points. I frequently set a scene in a room, but forget to note how it's furnished. Was there a loveseat or a recliner in the den? And how a character responds to setting is a good way to show the reader who that character really is.

Mary - nice to know you're a forgiving reader. I've never thrown a book for setting, but errors will make me doubt other things the author is telling me.

Unknown said...

Great topic, Terry,
I write historicals and read tons of them as well. I want to hear the horses hooves on the cobbles, the jingle of the reins, hear the swishing of the long gowns, smell the beeswax and see the opulence of the bedchambers, etc.

I can be overdone, as Mary says, but there is a point that needs to be reached to set the stage so to speak.

This is a great topic. Found you on An Alternative Read. I'll be back.

Brita Addams

Unknown said...

I need more coffee! It should read above, It can be overdone. Sorry about that, though I suppose I could be overdone, but that's another story. :)))

Terry Odell said...

Brita - typos don't count against you in blog comments. That's a 'rule'! Glad you found me. And yes, the language of an historical is quite different from a romantic suspense. The vocabulary/language is totally different as well, but that's another topic.

Unknown said...

I'm golden if typos don't count in blog posts!

Language is important as well. I love to write historicals for that reason and I find myself using some of the language in my every day speech. Modern speech could use a bit of the old fashioned!

The one concession I've had to give my editors is contractions. Many contractions didn't come into modern usage until after the time period I write (usually Regency, though I'm branching out), but I use them in narrative. I've had to "insist" my dialogue remain contraction free, unless it contains those used at the time, because I feel the characters should remain true to the times.

Great blog idea, Terry. Thanks!!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm not much of one for description, I have to admit...I usually skim through it as a reader unless it's really important to the story (the setting for the murder scene, etc.)

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth, I'm that kind of a reader too, which makes it an effort to add any descriptions when I'm writing. When I'm reading, I don't really care if the character is wearing a blue floral-sprigged frock--unless it's going to become a clue later on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Terry,

I love making up new settings, and enjoy finding new ways to describe a room, or area, without always just describing the room. Having the character do something with an object, or mention something, helps me do that.

Sherry Gloag said...

I agree with Brita that language is important. I've read many current Regency novels that simply put their characters into the dress of the times and talk away like they're in the 21st century. I find this a real turn-off.
I love settings because they lend atmosphere to the story.
Great blog Terry, thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Thank you Sherry, for that validation!!! Bless you.

I don't write contemporaries because I don't like the language - "Hey baby, wanna..." you get the idea. Sometimes I have to explain why I want to used certain phrases, words, etc., but as they say, I try to keep it real. That's the reason I like historicals to begin with.

Ann Macela said...

I need settings. I need to see my characters and the ones I'm reading about just like I was in a movie.
I also use setting for several purposes. Where a person lives and works can hold many clues to their character. How another character reacts to the setting is also telling. Doesn't matter if the story is historic, contemporary, or fantasy. It's the details that count.
I also use setting as character. In Windswept, the ex had decorated the front of the hero's house, and it was just as cold as she was.
I love this topic!
Cheers, Ann

Terry Odell said...

Angelika - as far as I'm concerned, it's ALWAYS about the characters. A room by itself is just a room.

Sherry - so true. If you're going to immerse the readers in a time period, you need to make sure everything is consistent.

Ann - great points. Thanks for dropping by.

Maeve Greyson said...

An author has to find the perfect balance between setting and plot or I find myself skimming the pages to get on with the "good stuff". I try to remember that when writing my own scenes. Great post!

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Terry,
Informative blog. I think the old adage write what you know still hold true when referring to settings and places. I find it very difficutl to write about places where I haven't actually been, it can be done, of course, but to really breathe the atmosphere of a town, I think you have to have been there. Well, that is my humble opinion anyway.



Terry Odell said...

Maeve - I tend to be with you most of the time. If an author shows the route the character is taking, it doesn't mean much to me UNLESS it's where I've lived, and then I smile and follow along.

Margaret - that's why I rarely set my stories in actual places. I base them on places I've been or know enough about to feel comfortable writing them. But they're 'made-up' sites.

Wynter said...

Mistakes drive me nuts. Therefore I try to set books somewhere I have been. When I need an on-the-street picture, Google is awesome.

Mimi Barbour said...

You've hit on one of my pet peeves. In my series which takes place in the Vintage era, in a small village in England where I've never been, it's driven me crazy to come up with the right kinds of trees, flowers, even the accents for the words they would use there back in the 50's and 60's. It's hellish to stress over one paragraph because it has to be correct, and when I can't find any kind of reference to what I want, and it's taken a good part of the morning, I feel I must dump it and move on. Grrr! I've become very adept at circling many subjects...if you know what I mean. Slippery like teflon...that's me!

Terry Odell said...

Wynter - first-hand is usually best. Not 100% required, but much easier.

Mimi - The art of the seamless writearound is a skill worth developing!

Kathy said...

I opted to set my current WIP in Hawaii after I spent time there in the late 1980's. I have a hard time with current stuff because I have no clue what anyone wears outside of jeans and a shirt or pants and a shirt because I lived in rural east Texas so many years. I like historical because it is easier to research stuff. I can find things for subjects via Google but to locate a town and stuff I'm no good. If I've never been there which is pretty much anywhere I would never know the difference. I just get on the Interstate and drive lol. I'm usually heading to or from somewhere fo a doctor's appointment or some other time restriction.

Shannon said...

While I'm writing Fantasy, and creating my own world, I'm still basing it somewhat on what I know. There's a lot of Australia in my novel with a few settings taking some of what I've seen and dealt with in the Riverland, Victor Harbor, and even the Coorong, and then mixing in other little bits and pieces like the experience of walking through salt plains in what is otherwise rural town / scrub land. Even in fantasy, it's useful to draw on experiences.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy, Hawaii is gorgeous. I've been there a couple of times and would love to send my characters there.

Shannon - building your own world isn't easy, but at least nobody can tell you the settings are wrong.