You’ve Chosen Your Setting – Now What?
Who cares where your story takes place? Just about everybody.
A well-chosen setting grounds your story in the reality of a particular place and time. It’s more than a flat backdrop against which themes and metaphors unfold. The setting is a character in its own right, and as such helps to propel the story forward, to reveal character, to heighten tension, and ultimately, to provide resolution.
CREATING THE SETTING
Who died and made you God? Setting is your opportunity for world-building. The importance of the right setting is most apparent in fantasy and science fiction writing, but is equally true for mysteries and mainstream fiction. A story’s setting forces the passage of time, unleashes weather, changes seasons and offers landscapes and skylines and history. It imposes restrictions upon your characters, as well as offering unique opportunities and challenges. The city of Paris, France, is real and familiar to many but in my novel, The Paris Key, I had to bring it to life for those who’ve never visited. Setting the story in Paris not only shaped what my characters could do and how, but allowed me to incorporate unique features, such as the city’s subterranean catacombs and the gargoyles high atop Notre Dame, as metaphors for my character’s journey as she unearthed family secrets and determined her own future.
Make it resonate: Evoking the texture of your setting is critical: make your fictional world as tactile and present to your reader as it is to the characters in the story. Address all five senses: sight, sound, feeling, taste—and don’t forget scent! Good or bad, our sense of smell is primal and evocative. An American in Paris may initially be struck by the beauty of its historic architecture, the grand museums, and well-tended parks, but will always remember the aromas of fresh baked bread from the boulangeries, sweets at the patisseries, coffee at the sidewalk cafes, the fresh rain on the pavement and the sometimes funky-smelling waters of the Seine.
Propel your story: Run out of ideas for your character halfway through your story? Look to your setting to ratchet up the emotional stakes for your character and move the story along. In The Paris Key, my protagonist can’t slip easily through her days because she is in a foreign country and has limited language skills. She struggles to understand—and to make herself understood—and even simple tasks are made challenging by a new language, different customs, and France’s legendary bureaucracy.
YOUR MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTER
If you make your setting the heart of your tale it will pump warmth or frigidity, comfort or strife, familiarity or strangeness through the entirety of your story.
Reveal character: Use your setting to reveal aspects of your protagonist’s character, whether through comfort with the surroundings, or conflict, or both. The Paris Key is essentially a tale of reinvention as my protagonist struggles to cope with being a newcomer, a fish out of water, a stranger in an unfamiliar (yet charming, this being Paris!) culture. The sights and sounds of Paris surround her and dictate her internal conflicts. Everyday activities pose new and unexpected difficulties and the struggle inspires constant questions: Is it worth it? Should I give up and go home? What have I done?
Different Time, Different Place: The unique history of the time period is, of course, a crucial part of your setting. Storylines from different eras might take place in the same physical setting, but the passage of time changes and affects the surroundings. The contrast between two different time periods can help tell your story: how have social customs and expectations, governments and communities changed? A secondary tale in The Paris Key has to do with a character damaged by the Basque struggles against the legacy of the Franco dictatorship; his presence in the City of Light, so far from Spain, brings the fight to the streets of Paris and echoes the brutality of World War II. On a personal level, his story becomes part of the family secrets the protagonist find buried in the catacombs.
Heighten conflict and find resolution: Setting can be the catalyst for plot development. Literally and metaphorically, our environment molds us. We may all be the same underneath, but think how different the life experiences of someone born and raised on a farm in California, compared to someone born and raised in Paris. The protagonist in The Paris Key has always held herself apart from others, but she finds this impossible in Paris, partly because of a culture of neighborliness she find herself in, and partly because the foreign setting makes her dependent on the kindness of strangers. As the novel progresses, the catacombs and the streets of Paris are the setting for the story’s resolution, as they reveal their secrets and the protagonist is forced to come to terms with her mother’s story, and the truth about her own past.
DON’T TACK IT ON
Whatever you do, make your setting integral to your book. Give it a purpose. Whether a story is set on a distant planet, in a spaceship, in a small American town, or a large French city, reveal the setting slowly over the course of your story, as you would any character. Allow your readers to “meet” your setting with fresh eyes at first, and uncover the complexity of the environment slowly, through the interactions of the story’s characters. Let the setting help you to frame and arrive at your resolution, as the environment makes its impact known. Remember, your setting can reflect, embody, or fight with your characters, but at the very least it will affect your novel’s emotional landscape, from first word to last.
JULIET BLACKWELL is the author of The Paris Key (Berkley/Penguin; 9/1/15), the New York Times bestselling Witchcraft Mysteries and the Haunted Home Renovation series. As Hailey Lind she wrote the Agatha-Award nominated Art Lover’s Mystery series. She is past president of Northern California Sisters in Crime and former board member of Mystery Writers of America. For more, visit: http://www.julietblackwell.net.