Monday, October 31, 2011

Where the Devil Are We? What Makes a Good Setting

By Joanna Bourne

JH: I'm doing a bit of a guest author spree this week, and to start it off, let's welcome back Joanna Bourne, who's here to chat with us about setting.

Joanna writes historical fiction set in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and Regency England. It was a time of love and sacrifice, clashing ideals, and really cool clothing. She in the Appalachian Mountains with her family, a dog, a cat and a goldfish. She's the author of the RITA award-winning My Lord and Spymaster, the American Library Association RUSA genre choice, Spymaster's Lady, and Forbidden Rose. Her new novel The Black Hawk comes out this week, so check it out. Joanna blogs at Historical Romance.

Take it away Joanna...

Whether our story takes place in the trackless jungle, on the third moon of Jupiter, or aboard a fishing boat off Haiti, it's always there. Setting. The, 'where the devil are we?'

Setting gives the characters something to stand on. It keeps everybody from floating around in a formless white void.

Good setting is the polar opposite of that void. It has physical dimensions the characters can waltz around in. It's full of color, smell, sound and texture. It has a certain underlying reality, which is why it helps to know something about the place you're describing.

Good setting changes while we're looking at it and it changes one scene to the next. We go inside, if we've just spent time outdoors. Quiet after frenetic. Safe after danger. Bright after dark. Crowded after solitude. Shiny and mechanical after pastel and pastoral.

Good setting is a stuffed-full-of-possibility place that's interesting even after your characters walk off the set. A pair of boots left by the door says somebody will go out to milk the cows in a bit. A cleaning rag, stuffed hastily in a pocket, tells us the woman who answers the door has been dusting. The bicycle leaning outside a shop says someone has stopped in to buy milk. Good scene ties us to the wider fictive world. It holds the loose ends of of unrelated stories. It has a before and after that continue when the scene is done.

All this drama, color, and contrast keeps the reader from nodding off in the middle of Chapter Six, which is one of those writerly goals we have.

It's probably useful to lay out the setting early on. When everybody climbs on the tour bus, the tour guide says, "We're headed to Hampton Court, or the Philadelphia mint, or Nemo's Cave in Adventureland. This is why first chapters sometimes get headed 'Dublin, 1860' or 'A small town in Iceland.' Nothing annoys people more than getting on a bus for Boston and ending up in Kyoto. Just mentioning.

In a nuts-and-bolts sorta way, setting serves a bunch of structural purposes in the manuscript.

Setting helps us shift focus.

A passage of description lets us glance away from the action. Sometimes we want to give the reader a rest so she can catch up and incorporate what's been going on. Sometimes we're moving from one mood to another, or from one character's POV to another's, or from a character's deep internals to the action of the scene. A description of scenery makes a kind of stepping stone. It's neutral ground between two focusses.

We use setting to control pacing. We do this in a couple three ways.

What it is . . . Mostly, we read faster than the action would occur, A formal dinner or baseball game might take three hours in the fictive world, but only six minutes to read through. We use a whole variety of 'pace slowers' and 'time cues' to convince the reader those hours have passed. Description, shifts in focus, cues of time marks, and just adding the bulk of an extra fifty or a hundred words, give a gut feeling of fictional time.

Setting relates to time in a natural, friendly way. A patch of sunlight slides across the kitchen tiles, the inrushing waters of the flood cut off all escape, the airplane touches down in Monaco and taxies aimlessly around the tarmac, a skein of wild geese crosses the sky. And we see time move.

What else? Setting characterizes.

When our heroine strolls into a crowded ballroom in Paris with the chandeliers glistening above her and footmen offering wine to all and sundry, we know something about our gal. We'd know something different about her if she walked onto the floor of a garment shop in 1910 Chicago or a whorehouse in Dodge City or a Starbucks. Where she is tells us who she is.

The scenery amplifies and nuances character emotion. Fear is the night woods with some rustle in the bushes off to stage left. Panic is scattered chairs and breaking bottles in a bar fight. Grim determination on the rocking, icy-cold deck of a schooner fleeing pirates is different from grim determination in the slithery peace of the reptile cages at the zoo.

Setting ties backstory to character. Not just a stretch of anonymous beach -- the beach where the drug shipment washed up last month; the sandy cove where she lost her virginity ten years ago; the storm-lashed rocks of his ancestral and forbidding manor.

Powerful stuff, setting.

Setting tells story.

It does this, in part, by encouraging expectations of what comes next. Put us in a western cow town and we will expect a gun fight eventually. Sit down in the parlor and we're ready for conversation. While this can lead us down the slippery path of cliche, it's also a shortcut that simplifies things for everybody. And, of course, it's great fun to break these conventions and pop us into Dodge City for a witty conversation or the Vicar's parlor for a gunfight.

Setting holds the action like a pair of cupped hands, containing and supporting. Good setting drives your characters to perform the plot action. If you want momentous, world-changing choices, pick a time and place where great events lie on a knife edge. If you want to explore the minutia of the human soul, the setting can be static and ordinary where the characters aren't constrained by forced choices. Kissing at the top of the Eiffel Tower is a different story from kissing at the top of the Curtis J. MaCroy Memorial Sewage Treatment Plant.

Setting is symbol.

The austere office of the abbot, the dark cavern our adventurers must traverse before they emerge into Shangri-La, the logs of the homemade raft coming apart as the stranded sailor goes mad . . .

And finally, setting itself can be a character.

The character has an emotional reaction to his setting. Sometimes, the setting seems to have an attitude back -- the mountain calls the hero to climb it, the creepy house terrifies the prospective governess, the mean streets grind down the protagonist.

So we choose our settings as carefully as we construct our characters. If you could plop your story down in Paris or Detroit or Nome with no noticeable different to plot or characterization, you've discarded a valuable tool.

About The Black Hawk

Black Hawk begins in Revolutionary Paris with heads falling under the guillotine and continues to the long aftermath of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Justine, skilled spy for the French, and Adrian, England's most ruthless and clever agent, have known each other since they were young teens. They meet again and again through the years of war and political intrigue. They've been friends, allies, secret lovers, rivals and open enemies. Sometimes all of these at once.

All their loyalty, all their determination to be sensible, didn't keep them from falling in love. And all their love didn't keep them from the final confrontation that put an end to that love for good.

Now the war is over, but they're still dodging knives and bullets. Somebody wants Justine messily dead and Adrian blamed for it. They've worked together before. Can they do it one last time when the stakes are so high?

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