Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Setting to Remember

I love an unforgettable setting. Whether I'm experiencing it, writing it or even reading about one, a good setting can create an unforgettable image that will stay with me long after. The challenge is how to write a great setting? First of all, like all great writing, it's a must to remember to use your five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and probably most important for setting, smell.

Setting is everything that places your reader: you need to let your reader know when the action is occurring - time of day, time of year, and era. That's not all, your reader also needs to know where in the world, or out of this world, your scene is taking place? Finally, also consider the weather as part of your setting.

Just like everything in your writing, your setting must serve a purpose. The setting either needs to work with your plot, work to create your character, or both.

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it," Chekhov famously said. In my novel, Rocky's Mountains, the characters are camping in the forest. When a tornado rips through the valley, they are left trapped. 

"We crawled along the edge of the rock face with branches and limbs whipping above us. Frequently Rocky would stop and I could tell he was searching for a way up and out of our tree-tunnel. The world clawed at our clothes and everything smelled of Christmas and death—pine trees and mold. Some of the needles stabbed at me, poked into my skin and were left to hang there—no time to pull them out. We struggled through mud and water. . ." Later they see trees scattered like "toothpicks" and taste blood from their injuries.

Setting can also be used to create a character. Alma's restaurant in Rocky's Mountains is a small Wyoming diner, named after the owner's greatest love - his horse. 

"A cowbell clanged as I opened the door of Alma’s cafĂ© and the intoxicating aroma of old-fashioned grilled hamburgers, homemade French fries and coffee surrounded me. According to the engraved sign over the door, the dive served food and spirits. From the stuffed two headed calf sitting high on a shelf, to the brands burned into the wood plank tables, the diner practically exuded the essence of the old west." 

After your first introduction you learn of the smell of the green stuff that comes in on the boots of the ranchers and it reminds you who frequents the place. You hear the gruffness of the owner's voice as he asks for your order. You see him spit tobacco. You know the characters belong.  

When creating a setting, work to define the space and place in such a way that your reader knows why it's mentioned.

Exercise: write about a room, restaurant, outdoor area or other place you know well. Now rewrite the setting creating an atmosphere of romance or mystery. Finally, take two completely different characters and put each of them in the space. How does each of these changes affect your setting? Give your reader not just a great story, but also a place to remember.

D. Jean Quarles is a writer of Women's Fiction. She loves to tell stories of personal growth where success has nothing to do with money or fame, but of living life to the fullest. She is the author of Rocky's Mountains, Fire in the Hole and, Perception, her latest book dealing with the subject of death and the afterlife. The Mermaid, an award winning short story was published in the anthology, Tales from a Sweltering City. She is a wife, mother, grandmother and business coach. In her free time . . . ha! ha! ha! Anyway, you can find more about D. Jean Quarles, her writing and her books at her website at

Her novels are available in electronic format here, or print format here
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Karen Cioffi said...

Jean, Great post. Setting can actually be like a character in your story, it's that essential.

I love the Chekhov quote. It also lends itself to not leaving loose ends.

Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

Kevin McNamee said...

Hi Jean

Sometime it is easy to overlook setting and be too focused on characters. Thanks for the reminder.


Unknown said...

Thanks Jean. Great info. Loved the excerpts.

I recently put this into action in my WIP. When describing a bombed out home, I mentioned the fireplace where family and friends gathered as the only structure intact. In other words, in War our home may be destroyed, but our spirits and family ties can not be destroyed.

Mayra Calvani said...

Great post, Jean! I also love a great setting! I tweeted it and facebooked it. :-)

D. Jean Quarles said...

Thanks for all the lovely comments. Yes, so very important to remember.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Jean, I'm always amazed that setting is one of the things most new authors forget to do. I know because I get their work to edit. (-: It's especially surprising when almost all memorable novels are firmly grounded in place.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Author of the multi award-winning The Frugal Editor: How to put your best book forward to avoide humiliation and ensure success

Heidiwriter said...

Excellent writing examples. Your first one especially creates a mood as well. Setting is very important to our writing, but not large "chunks" of mere description. That balance is difficult for new writers to achieve, but with practice, we can all get there!

Magdalena Ball said...

What an excellent post Jean and some wonderful examples of setting at its best.

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