Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Setting Wow: Making Your Setting as Important as Your Plot and Characters

Hi, AlleyPals! Laurie here :) Today it's my privilege to welcome one of my dear friends, debut author Sally Bradley. She recently celebrated the release of her novel, Kept, and I couldn't be more excited for her. You guys are in for a real treat today :)  
Setting has typically been a weakness for me. I always used specific locales and even explored the area so I could write knowledgeably, but when people talked about the setting being another character in the story, I knew I wasn't there. Then came Kept.

Kept takes place on the edge of Grant Park in Chicago. I've been there a number of times, but it wasn't an area I knew. Yet somehow, in this book, the setting mattered in every chapter. It affected everything, and readers who know the area said I captured it well. So I got to thinking. What did I do differently? Why did my setting have such an impact on the story? Better yet, how could I do this again? After much thought, here's what I came up with.

1. Adore your setting.

Like... seriously. Take that adoration to the nth power. I'm a Chicago geek. I grew up in the suburbs and loved every moment my family spent visiting museums or parks or driving by the skyscrapers. If I had to pick, I'd totally live downtown. In fact, I'd live in the exact luxury high rise that Miska Tomlinson, my heroine and no relation to Laurie, lives in. I realize now that was key.

Photograph (may or may not be digitally edited) To me, Chicago is a gorgeous, glittering magic that I can never get enough of. And Metropolitan Tower, on the edge of Grant Park with incredible views of Lake Michigan and Buckingham Fountain, captivated me. I wanted to know what it would be like to live there. My fascination with my setting helped me not just include it, but also bring it to life. Find that one spot that makes you passionate, the place that maybe no one else even knows you love so intensely -- or are curious about. That fascination, that love will keep you tied closely to your story, always wanting more. You'll strive to do it justice, to make everyone else see the same beauty and value.

2. Make your setting truly visual.

Do you make up a town? Use a real one? Since Chicago is my MO, I went for reality. When my characters were arguing beside the lakefront, I hopped on Google Earth, went down to street level, and stood where they stood, took in all the views they did. When my hero chased my heroine back to their building, I traced his path along the streets and showed details that mattered -- the crosswalk signals that kept him from catching her, the revolving door of their building that she went through. In essence, I didn't have to make stuff up. I looked at what was there and made sure it got onto the page. You can do this too, even if you make up a location. Find a real place that matches your imagination and get every image, video, picture that you can. Surround yourself with them so that at any moment, you can look at what's real and draw inspiration from it. Of course you can make stuff up, but having something visual helps you include details you'd forget otherwise. And if you can see it, odds are so will your reader. Also find the one thing about your setting that matters most. What do you really love or want to play up? For me, that was Buckingham Fountain. I wanted Miska to have a view of this massive fountain. (Tell me that's not stunning!)

Because I loved the fountain so much, I looked for opportunities to not just include it, but to highlight it and make it come alive for the reader. You become an evangelist for the setting because we want everyone to catch our passion, right?

3. Connect your characters to the setting.

Kept Endorsement
In the past, my characters were ambivalent about where they lived. But not this time. In fact, the whole plot revolves around Miska's love for her home's location and her determination to day anything (seriously, anything!) to stay there. Dillan, the hero, likes the area too, although not as intensely. Early in the book, he makes a comment about Buckingham Fountain that makes Miska think he loves it the same way she does. It's that innocent comment that makes her first take notice of him. How do your characters feel about their setting? Do they hate it? Love it? How can that feed your plot? Your characters' motivation? Figure out how it affects them. And if it doesn't? Maybe that story isn't right for this setting.

Met Tower 4. Use the setting to create action and characterization.

We don't want our setting to just be a stage; we want it to play a role in the book -- in the characters and in the plot. That's why it's so important that your characters have strong feelings about their location. Like I said, Miska will do anything to live by Grant Park. But as her character arc evolves, she begins to react -- and behave -- very differently toward the setting. It's that change that conveys how deeply her character has changed.

I also used setting to play a role in the plot. I'd love to tell you exactly how, but I'd have to give the ending away to do it! But go back to what fascinated you about your setting. Go back to your visuals and the details you uncovered as you explored the area. What can you use literally in the action of your book? What aspect of the setting can twist everything around for your characters?

5. Don't force the symbolism.

During the rough draft, I spent too much time on the fountain, park, and lakefront. I overwrote about them big time, but it was so fun. When I began editing, I kept coming back to Buckingham Fountain. There was some symbolism there; I just knew it. But I didn't know what it was. What did it mean? What did it signify?

It wasn't until the fourth draft that it dawned on me. The fountain had a spiritual significance to my heroine. Now I never tell the reader this. In fact, I'd like to think that it's very subtle and that a lot of people will miss it. But I think deep in the reader's subconscious, the fountain's symbolism creates a continuity between Miska and her character growth. The setting connects her to her internal goals and arc. I'm so glad that I didn't censor myself or force anything during those early drafts, because it would have been obnoxiously in the reader's face. But something was going on in my own subconscious, tying the things I loved to deeply personal moments in my character's life. Letting it happen naturally was worth the forehead wrinkles. 

So there it is, my list for setting success. Next up for me is a rewrite of a book I loved... but had no connection to the setting. I'll be taking time to figure out exactly where this story should take place. And I can't wait to see how it changes everything.


Bio ShotSally Bradley writes big-city fiction with real issues and real hope. A Chicagoan since age five, she now lives in the Kansas City area with her family, but they still get back to Chicago once in a while for important things like good pizza and White Sox games. A freelance fiction editor, story has been her passion since childhood, and she's thrilled now to be writing books that not only entertain, but point back to Christ. You can find Sally at her website and Facebook page and can check out images for Kept on the book's Pinterest board. Kept is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo and will soon be available at iBooks.


Jeanne Takenaka said...

What a great post, Sally! I've always tried to figure out how to make my setting more of a character. I love your methods for doing this. I can't wait to read your book!

Laurie Tomlinson said...

Excellent advice. Love that you've developed a brand for yourself as a writer at least PARTIALLY based on setting. (Because we know it's mostly about the amazing writing!)

I can't wait to have a date with KEPT on the plane to St. Louis :)

Sally Bradley said...

Thanks, Jeanne and Laurie. I'm sure there are other ways to make setting pop too. I'd love to hear techniques that work for you guys.

Robin E. Mason said...

Because I'm in the "shallow end" of the whole author pool, I always thrill a little to see that something I'm doing is what other do also! I have used both New York City never been there in my life!)and created a town, both of which I absolutely Google-Mapped, including the terrain and street views, as well as landmarks. Also mileage and sites along the way for road trips.
Thanks for sharing your experience! It's definitely a valuable tool, and yes, this is a post I'm saving to word doc for future reference!
oh! and I can't wait to be able to read Kept and meet Chicago! And Miska!

Sally Bradley said...

Robin, that's one of the perks of picking a big, famous setting. It's so easy to do research! Nothing beats visiting, of course, but I love being able to hop on YouTube and watch Buckingham Fountain's light show or ride along with someone on Lake Shore Drive. Fun stuff! Glad the post helped.

And thank you ALL for being excited about Kept with me! Hope you love my Chicago peeps. :)

Shelli Littleton said...

Sally, this is a great help. My first book was set at my property ... so that was easy. This next YA book ... I've got to figure out the setting. And I'll be using all your helps.

Blessings to you and your book.

Pepper Basham said...

Great post, Sally. Thanks so much for visiting The Alley.

I'm with you on LOVING my setting. That's why I place most of my books in The Blue Ridge Mountains because I LOVE my home!! And there is so much scope for the imagination :-)

The culture that's already present in our settings can have such influence in the stories.


Sally Bradley said...

Shelli, I imagine that you got no details wrong there! :D Hope you figure out the next book; I'm still noodling down here in Kansas...

Sally Bradley said...

Pepper, thank you. I think the Blue Ridge Mountains would offer so many opportunities for you! You've definitely got history and culture aplenty. Plus nature and natural dangers. And loving that area only makes it better!Your stories definitely won't happen in a vacuum.

Rachelle O'Neil said...

Aah! I've wanted to read the rest of Kept ever since I read the first chapter on Novel Rocket. I was completely hooked! Now I've got to go get it!

Setting is actually a pretty weak spot for me, so I always wince while reading advice on giving it the attention it deserves. That being said, you had good points that I need to use. Thanks, Sally!

Sally Bradley said...

Yay, Rachelle! Thanks so much for saying that, and I hope it lives up to expectation.

It's tough to make setting really pop. I still find that I don't include smell enough. Must work on that!

Rachelle O'Neil said...

Ah, smell. Yes, that's a hard one! I think I'm good with colors and temperature, but I've got a long way to go! :D

Megan Sayer said...

This is such a timely post, thank you! I adore books set in real settings because it feels like travel, visiting places in my mind and getting a sense of them, what it's like to live there. Setting is crucial.
Yet at the same time I've been hesitant to set my current WIP in my home town. I want to, desperately. I want to explore what it feels like to live somewhere so isolated, and the fact that it's actually got an abandoned (and, allegedly, "haunted") mental hospital there when I'm writing about people dealing with the trauma and stigma of mental illness, it's too good a setting NOT to use. I just don't want people to try and connect my fictional story with real people in the town, or assume that fictional events are real because the town is real. This is no Chicago, this is a town of 10,000 people, and honestly, I still don't know what's best.
It might be too vague a thing to ask, but...any thoughts? Thank you!

Sally Bradley said...

Megan, that's a good question! When you have a smaller town, the odds are better that people will see themselves in the story, even if you didn't put them there.

Can you use your town as the template but rename it and set it elsewhere? Change a few key details?

Sally Bradley said...

One of my favorite novels is Siri Mitchell's Chateau of Echoes because it's totally like a relaxing trip to France, food and all!