Friday, May 3, 2013

Story Settings Are Important by Roz Denny Fox



During my years in the business of writing romance books I’ve found the two areas readers most often comment on when they write or email me are characters and setting. One of the first workshops I attended as a brand new writer, a well-known author said she never used a real town or city, but always made up one and noted it was X number of miles outside of (and she supplied the names of recognizable places.) That way she made up her book setting, but could use characteristics she knew were in and around the better known locale she has identified. It seemed a good plan to me as settings establish intimacy with your readers based on detail viewed through the eyes of your view point characters.
Being a bit of a compulsive/obsessive person who religiously fills out character sheets on my primary and secondary characters, I tried to devise such an outline for settings. It never caught on as did character sheets, but I still use a modified form where I establish country, state and capitol, borough, parish or township, near what recognizable city.
I consider the over-all population I want to work with, and decide (if applicable) the type of city government. Is there a mayor, city council, police, fire, etc? I choose a season and research what flora, fauna and/or wild animals might be found in the real general area during the season of my story. I want to know if there are mountains, lakes, rivers or canyons that would be known to readers who do live in the area. I decide if I want my town to have parks, hospitals or shopping malls, or is my story town so small the characters must drive to those locations? And if they drive to a larger city, do they pass landmarks or statues of importance? I like to know how far they’d have to go to find an airport. I can’t recall using trains or subways much which tells you I rarely set a book on the East Coast.
I like to know in advance of writing a book if the community I’ve built is friendly, bustling, slow, or sleepy. Do people neighbor, or do they mind their own business. I tend to populate my settings with all age groups, but I know writers who settle on one segment of a population such as gen X, gen Y or senior citizens.
It’s a given that any writer has to consider the environment when selecting a setting. Is there fog, smog, rain, sunshine with high or low humidity? So could you utilize a blizzard, a hurricane, an earthquake, forest fires, or drought?
I bear in mind the people, their customs and ethnic makeup, which means I must decide if I mention a variety of languages or not. Do I salt in regional slang, and what are popular hang outs that my characters frequent and who else goes there?
I love to see if there are festivals, fairs, or holiday celebrations in or around the area of my setting. They add color and sight impressions that connect with readers.
Writers who set a series in one particular area must make some sort of spreadsheet to keep a handle on the roads, architecture, business names and so forth. I think part of what holds reader interest in connected stories is the setting. And I know friends of mine who write science fiction or fantasy and do whole world building, have meticulous notes, because their settings are distinctively different from our own. That’s why many combine the known with the unknown. It’s so the reader feels a common bond with the made up society or world.
Sometimes you only need a line or two in your story that will speak to a reader and give the flavor of authenticity to your book. I love it when a reader feels moved to write to me out of a sense of nostalgia for a setting I’ve crafted.
Does setting matter to you in writing, and does where a story is set play a part in you considering a book a keeper?  

20 comments:

  1. I think my favorite community of yours was in Sweet Tibby Mack. I still sometimes try to remember what retirement community I visited where... Oh, and then I remember it wasn't a community I visited, but your wonderful book that was so real.

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  2. Excellent job of reminding writers what goes into that broad umbrella called "setting." All those elements bring fiction to life. No wonder I love your books.

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  3. Thank you Roz! I will be printing this blog to keep as a reference going forward. Being new to series writing, I didn't do any real pre-planning in writing the first book and boy did it show during my edits with my agent! lol But now as I write book two and outline three and four, I'm designing my master pegboard spread of characters, my town map, etc. Thanks again! Helpful post!

    xo
    Jen

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  4. Pam, Linda & Jen, thanks for dropping in. I maybe love pre-planning too much. I can over research, over-think and fiddle-fart around a long long time before I get anything on paper. Have a great weekend ya'all.

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  5. Roz - this post explains precisely why you have the fan base you have. The community established by character and place is that little dome that closes over us when we settle down with a good book and 'live' there until we're finished - and sometimes after we're finished. Your WESTERN DARE was so rich with fascinating detail that I feel as though travelling on a wagon train is now part of my experience. I'm keeping this post for my summer class. Thank you!

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  6. World building is one of the most time consuming, yet ultimately rewarding parts of the pre-writing experience. I haven't been brave enough to create one from scratch but even going with a real place takes a lot of thinking in terms of the many details you mentioned. I had fun researching chess tournaments in NYC for example! Great post, Roz. Thanks

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  7. Muriel--Aw, you're so nice. I know everyone is saying readers today only want the action scenes. I hope a lot of readers are like us and still like the little details that let us live in the stories we read.

    Karen, chess just looks challenging. I'll be looking forward to reading how you salt it into your story.

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  8. Roz - what a great post with lots of food for thought. I'll be referring to it again and again. Thank you!

    Like you, I go with fictional locations and sprinkle in details from actual nearby places.

    Setting does matter to me, though my small towns are so real in my mind, I sometimes have to make sure I've put a few of the visuals on the page!

    Barbara
    The Daille-y News

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  9. Barbara, I love that homey atmosphere about your books. Keep them rolling.

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    1. Roz - you're such a sweetheart. (But we all know that about you already!)

      Thanks.

      Barbara
      The Daille-y News

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  10. Roz, I'm amazed that after all these years of reading your books, I only NOW realized how unusual you are in not always setting them in the same few places.

    You've created so many totally credible worlds, but as I look back it seems like they're in several dozen different locations...now it's cool to see how you do that!

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  11. Hi Roz,
    I love this post. Without knowing those sage words of advice you heard as a newbie, I did exactly that, creating a setting in a made-up town southeast of Tucson. I'm printing out your list of details to consider. Thank you!
    Laura

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  12. Hi Roz, I like your tips on setting. I don't plan setting ahead of time like you do and I think it's a skill I need. So great blog. Thanks.
    Connie

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  13. Laurie, Laura, Connie---Thanks for checking in and for thinking I have some valid information to give about selecting settings.

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  14. Hi Roz, Thanks for the tips on setting up the setting. Oops bad pun. But the hints are very helpful. smile
    I always enjoy the settings in your books. I'm like you though. I need a list.

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  15. Sandra,
    Funny. Setting is something I love and that pulls me into a book. The characters are of number one importance, but setting must be right up there as second.

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  16. Great information. I am going to copy this as a reference. Most of my settings are really small towns, simply because I have never lived in a city over 300 people. Thank you, Roz.

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  17. Setting is so important. I use real settings and include details such as the ones you described. Then I travel down that street and the location I've included in my book no longer exists! Very frustrating.
    Marion

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  18. Ah, so this is how you get your settings so perfect, Roz! Thanks for sharing your secrets!

    Shelley

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  19. Hey all who posted on Saturday---I checked back today to see if we had a news post as we talked about doing one on Saturday. Gail, Marion, Shelley, thanks for stopping by.
    Marion, it's so true about settings changing. Major catastrophes like hurricanes, fires etc or even businesses closing etc make settings obsolete quickly. That's another reason why it's good to make up your own town.

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