A couple weeks ago, my husband and I drove to Charleston to celebrate our anniversary. We'd never been to Charleston before, and to say I feel head-over-heels for this city would be an understatement. The history, the shopping, the biscuits and sweet tea! Can life get any better? I'd say a Charleston-set story is definitely on the horizon for me.
All this got me thinking. Seems like every time I travel to a cool place, whether it's a new coffee shop in town or a new city, I find a creative spark there. So what if we could learn to capture that creative spark and add it to our stories?
I think the answer lies in thinking of setting not just as a place but as a culture.
So, if you're writing about Charleston, for example, the first things that come to mind are probably saltgrass baskets, church steeples, and sweet tea. All great examples of Charleston culture.
But do these things really capture the heart of Charleston, and for that matter, Charlestonians? No. For the real heartbeat of a setting, we have to go deeper. If we want our readers to connect with our characters on a heart-level, accurately describing the time period of the surroundings isn't enough. We have to be intentional about setting. We have to choose a particular time and place that compliments the story.
So, maybe your character does live in Charleston and love southern biscuits, but what if there's more to it than that? What if she is in the process of renovating her family's hundred-year-old home and she loves biscuits because her grandmother used to make fresh jam every Saturday morning? What if the church steeples aren't just dots in the landscape, but a sound that stirs hope in the heart of a newly-divored woman one block down the street?
It can be so easy to blaze right past setting as something that's in the way when we're trying to hash out the plot details, but setting can be every bit as important as plot in crafting depth within a story. Think of books that have left a lasting impression on you. I bet most of them not only put you in the mind of the character, but also in her situation, which entails her setting.
So how do we craft these three-dimensional settings?
- Go to your setting. If you have the ability to physically go to your setting, great. If not, try YouTube videos, Google photos, magazine interviews, etc. to immerse yourself in that culture. It's not enough to know how something appears. Readers want the unexpected. What is going on in your setting that isn't as it appears? That is where you'll find your true story.
- Ask how your setting impacts your characters. Is your character living in a new city that's outside her comfort zone? Or, in contrast, have three generations of her family lived in Victoria, British Columbia? Do the very streets seem to be family to her? Be intentional about your setting. If you aren't using setting to your advantage in your WIP, challenge yourself by asking if you might be able to change your setting to challenge your characters in some way.
- Don't settle for descriptions. Get specific with your details so you can weave backstory into your setting. Ask yourself, "Why?" For example, "Why does it matter that this character always looks at the street lamps at dusk?" Or, "Why does this character avoid cobblestone streets? Is she always wearing heels? Why does she feel she needs to always wear heels?" Go deeper into the culture of a place (and the heart of your characters) when describing the setting. Setting should have a heartbeat, just like your characters do.
- Find creative ways to describe setting. Using common descriptions of a particular setting is fine, as most people expect taxis in New York and pecan pie in Georgia, but push past that. Really work to find creative ways to describe your setting. This is also were going to your setting can be very helpful. Try observing people's mannerisms or the sounds in your setting, and then incorporate those unique aspects into your story. Readers want to see a place in a new way when they read your book--that's the whole point of inhabiting a story world.
Your turn! How do you use setting in your stories? How do you incorporate the deeper culture of a place into your setting?
Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.