Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on research with Notes from a Time Traveler This week we are talking about setting, but not just as a background for your character. We’re going to look at setting as a character in itself.We move through our day going from place to place. The house, the car, the office, we drive down the street, and stop at the grocery store. But as we move through each location, we usually don’t take note of things specific to each, such as the chip bag peeking out from the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of your son’s room, the number of cars versus SUVs on the roads, or the coffee ring stains on your desk. We see places and the objects in them, but, in most cases, they quickly fade from our minds.
As writers, is that what we want for our stories? Places readers hardly notice because every school is the same two-story brick building, and every classroom has four dirty off-white walls and twenty-five desks? Of course that is fine for some settings, especially ones your characters visit once or twice. And because we are still in the early stages of writing our novel, settings may be just that: a house, school, or deserted island called Lain Yu where our characters go, do something then leave. But for more frequented locations, I’m going to give you a different option. And even in the early stages of drafting, it’s not too soon to think about it.
What if settings were like characters with their own smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and textures, all capable of invoking feelings and memories in others? And if you look at settings that way…
How does a setting impact your characters, the decisions they make, and how they interact with other people and places they come in contact with?
Let’s look at some examples from my works-in-progress:
Mel walks into her science classroom. The smell of alcohol from yesterday’s dissecting project lingers in the air. A few kids fan papers in front of their noses, but Mel barely notices because her best friends are two sweaty teenage boys. She glances at the whiteboard, sees the topic “Genes,” her chest tightens and she collapses into her chair. Why? Because Mel is deaf and relies partly on hearing aides, but mostly on lip-reading to get her through class. The topic “Genes” will do doubt include long complicated words like ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid. Those words are almost impossible to pronounce and definitely impossible to lip-read.
Here’s another example:
Most kids don’t mind taking the school bus home. It’s like a magic carpet transporting them from boring classrooms to home where video game systems are waiting. But for Troy who has Tourette syndrome and OCD, and a compulsion to count his steps then touch the floor after every ten, there’s no where to hide from laughing and finger-pointing classmates and the slick slime-covered floor that will end up on his own fingers.
Looking at these examples, how are the settings going to effect the character’s thoughts, behaviors, interactions with others, and even dialogue? Would Mel feel differently if she wasn’t deaf or if she walked into a math class instead of science? Another way to look at this is to imagine setting as a friend or foe.
Another reason to look at setting as a character is that it allows you to see it as much more than it’s everyday common function. A graveyard can become home, a tight space under the stairs can be a sanctuary, and a school can be a bully. And as your characters change and grow throughout the story, the setting can too.
Remember, not all places in your story need to be as detailed. Sometimes a house is just a house.
But if you decide settings in your story need a little more detail, the best resources I found are the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses from One Stop for Writers. These books describe over two hundred places ranging from a child’s bedroom to a police station to a rodeo. They have notes on all five senses along with tips, resources, and examples.
So how can we incorporate this into our novels? Look at your work-in-progress and use the chart below to capture details about the setting.
Now that you have an idea on how and why to make setting a character, I’m going to leave you with an exercise. It’s not homework, I won’t be grading it, but consider giving it a try during free writing time.
Think about your childhood bedroom. Write about it for fifteen minutes and include all five senses. How did it look, sound, smell, taste, and feel(texture)? Now write how it made you feel (emotions).
I would love if you shared your writing in the comments!
HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.