Monday, March 25, 2013

Setting Up Your Story – Your 3 Point Terrain

The Writer Alley is gearing up to chat about ‘Setting’ for the next two weeks and you guys are in store for a lot of great information. So since you’re going to hear about various different settings within the next several posts, I’m going to chat about ‘setting’ as an overview in your story.

My 15 year old defined setting like this: You have to know the terrain to plan the battle

I LOVE that – because it’s true! The palate of setting influences the rules, decisions, expectations, beliefs, and plot to paint the picture of your story. If you don’t know your setting, it’s difficult to plan your writing strategy.

So…er….what is ‘setting’? Well, briefly, here are three points.

1.       Provides a sense of space and time (the bottom-line basics)

2.       Provides cultural rules and expectations (the flexible frame)

3.       Provides character (the influential core)

A sense of space and time

This first point is about the ‘bottom-line basics’ of setting. It’s the answer to the question Where and When does your story take place?  Simply put, this usually sums up our ‘genre’ titles like: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative, Fantasy, Western…etc

In my YA fantasy novel, The Book of Beginnings, I’ve developed an imaginary world. This is the most extreme way to manipulate setting. Much like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the author creates a ‘story world’ which is different than our own. Nonhuman beings, a brand new space-time continuum, machines or animals unfamiliar to us.

But that’s not all. Even if the setting is in our own world, it guides our choices of vocabulary, dress, references, occupations, and even transportation.  Sleepless in Seattle is a contemporary setting. Gone with the Wind is a historical setting. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is mostly a fantasy setting. Our brains develop a certain ‘picture’ of setting when we use these words and it’s from this starting point where we move off to the other setting-points.

Cultural rules and expectations

The place, time, era, and culture in which your character lives (and was raised) is a highly influential part of the setting. To know how this influences your story, you might answer the question So what makes this setting different to your characters' lives? How does it 'frame' their worldviews?
My historical novel, The Thornbearer, is set during The Great War. AlleyCat Amy Simpson’s novels are contemporary romantic suspense. The cultural expectations of my heroine are extremely different than the cultural expectations of hers. Does this influence the story? You bet!! My heroine’s ‘secret’ is a BIG deal in 1916 – a social and moral debauchery. In the contemporary world, it’s still a big deal, but it doesn’t darken other people’s opinion of the main character like it does in Edwardian England.


My favorite point of setting and the most influential!
This is where the setting takes on a life of its own. In my Contemporary Romantic Comedy, the Blue Ridge Mountains becomes a pulse in the workings, emotions, and relationship opportunities for my characters. The weather and terrain influence the character’s lives, choices, and even the way the talk :-)

Some authors use one piece of setting to hold special meaning. I think Nicolas Spark does this a lot. For example, the church in which a heroine’s mom and dad were married holds special significance for her and provides ‘answers’ in her hard times. Therefore, there might be several scenes when she is particularly ‘broken’ in which she MUST visit that particular church to feel her parents near her, even though they are dead.

In my historical, the Lusitania provides a setting which is as alive as the sea on which it floats – thrusting my characters into fighting against it to survive.  World War 1 also provides this opportunity, shaping the attitude of individuals, decision which wouldn’t otherwise have to be made, and moving the story forward with the sheer force of its presence.
So – have you ever thought about setting in this way? How does setting work in your stories?


Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for sharing this interesting approach to thinking about setting!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Nice post, Pepper! You spelled it out nicely. I love that the Blue Ridge Mountains are a "character" in your book! I love that particular "flavor"! :)

Debra E. Marvin said...

looking forward to more on setting. It's such an important "character" for me as well. I'm excited to hear about your 1916 novel. LOVE THIS SETTING and it's not just because of Downton Abbey, either.

Angie Dicken said...

I am a huge setting person! I love to think of it as a character in my book too. It really has a life of its own!
Great post to start this series, Pepper!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I love setting. It paints the story in 3 D and tosses me into the canvas with the characters.

Anonymous said...

I love this, Pepper. I'm good with describing story world, but I don't always utilize setting as an important character in my books. I love how you brought in cultural norms and expectations as well. This series comes at a good time, as I move closer to really fast drafting my next story.

Loved this today!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

So great, Pepper! And thanks for the shout out! Your settings most definitely have a pulse in your stories!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Great stuff, Pep. I really like what you wrote about cultural expectations. You made me start thinking along a whole new tack (for me)... like how within every culture are subcultures with different rules and different accepted behaviours. So even in the same setting (say a big contemporary city) there are so many different faces of that setting depending on the part of the city, the socio-economic strata the characters are in, their jobs/interests etc.... Anyhow, totally rambling, but I love it that you made me think!

And as a side note, there is NOTHING more fun than making up your own setting for a fantasy! I love that! Total creative freedom - much more fun than research and having to get it "right". At least I think so. ;)

Pepper said...

Thanks, Andrea. Glad it was interesting to you

Pepper said...

thanks, Sherrinda! I LOVE my home in the mountains. It's so easy take this culture and add a little 'spice' for fiction. Oh so much fun!!!!

Pepper said...

I'm a big Downton fan, but in all honesty, I started writing this series about 10 years ago, so it wasn't influenced by Downton - although when I'm reading over it I'm thinking "Gee, that sounds like something that would happen on Downton" :-)

Pepper said...

Thanks Ang and Mary.
I'm trying not to beat myself up about not spicing up this post some more. Hopefully it's good basics

Pepper said...

Woohoo! Go Jeanne! I"m almost finished with my fast draft. Just now writing into the black moment. AHHHH!!!

Pepper said...

Thanks, Ames.
Easy to give a shout out when your writing makes me sin with envy.
Yeah, your fault - totally!!! :-)

Pepper said...

Every post you write makes me think so I FINALLY returned the favor?? Awesome!
And I know, we can always dig deeper into cultural differences and peel back layer after layer after layer.

But they're wonderful influences to setting

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Setting is such a fun topic to think about. I really love making setting an extra character in my novels, and now that I've been writing some YA, it's fun to see setting in a different light when I use it in sci-fi and fantasy instead of a real-life contemporary way.

Mary said...

Nice description of setting! Love the photos!