Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Make Your Setting Come Alive

By Jeffery Phillips

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Setting plays a critical role in a novel by giving the reader a place to settle in and enjoy the story. Today, Jeffery Phillips returns to the lecture hall for some tips on bringing your setting to life.

Jeffrey “Hammerhead” Philips strapped on a scuba cylinder (when Clorox bottles were BCD’s) for the first time in 1967. Dove for two years, decided he liked the water and obtained his scuba certification from NASDS, then became a PADI instructor. He hasn’t stopped diving since. In 1980 he married the prettiest mermaid in the ocean, Kitty. Today, he lives in Monterey, Tennessee, writing fictionalized events of his travels. He's the author of Murder on Devil Ray Reef and Death at Obeah's Fire.
Website | Facebook | Goodreads |

Take it away Jeffery...

I think we all know that when the setting of your scene is fully developed it becomes a character in your story. The setting can be a good guy or bad. In most cases, except for the beginning and the end of your story, it should be a bad guy. Something that causes terrible trouble to the hero of the scene or causes obstacles to be overcome.

And we all know to give a character depth and richness is to use the five senses (hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting) and the four elements (earth, wind, fire, water), plus emotion. Writing on location is an excellent way to feel all ten aspects. If you can’t write on location, to experience what your hero experiences will be difficult (unless you are a master of the craft), but not impossible.

In reading underwater scenes, we have seen where the author states there is no sun light at shallow depths or there is complete silence. Both are untrue. Depending on the latitude, light penetrates anywhere from a hundred feet to several hundred feet. True, the beams will lose their colors at depths, but it is there in blues, indigos, and violets. As far as sound, the silence started with Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s, The Silent World. Remember, sound travels faster and farther underwater than above the surface. On coral reefs, it is very loud and even at great depths, beyond the light, in a barren terrain, it is possible to hear whale songs.

To refresh my knowledge before writing a scene, I like to complete a scuba dive or snorkel or just float in the water. The same can be done for any type of setting. Hike through a woods, stand in snow, lay in the sun on a hot day.

Let’s begin our journey.

Sight: What Do You See?

This is the easy one. Describe the movements and colors of the surroundings. Every color in the rainbow can be seen on a coral reef or deep in the woods. Each plant and animal has its own unique form of movement, from following the sun to locomotion.


Sound: What Do You Hear?

In the underwater world, crabs snap their claws, parrot fish crunch coral, Goliath groupers boom (a very deep bass), and different man-made noises, explosions, engines, and other machinery. Also, exhaust bubbles from a diver’s air supply rumble to the surface. In the forest, birds chirp, branches thud or crash to the ground, hogs grunt.

Smell: What Scents Are There?

A hard one in the water because the face is usually covered with a mask. But if it should be pulled off, strong scents can be detected. Mostly foul odors that are man-made or pollution. On land, flowers and trees blooming, dead animals, and the air.


Touch: How Does it Feel?

Softness, the body of an eel. Hardness, shipwrecks. Rough, skin of most fish. The file fish received its name because fisherman used their dried skin as sandpaper. In the forest, moss and fungi are soft. Hardness, rocks, stones, and the ground. Rough, tree bark. Don’t forget that plants have all kinds of defense mechanism such as sharp needles or jagged sides that want to stab, cut, and slice you.

Taste: What Do Things Taste Like?

So many people have told me, you can’t taste anything while underwater. Obviously, they have not spent much time in the watery world. The air that is breathed can be neutral, sweet, or retched depending on how contaminated it is. A couple of times, after completing a dive, my tongue felt like it was coated in a chalky powder. Also, the equipment used can take on a metallic taste. And in nature, there is the full range of taste. Most authors like to skip it because it is easy to do so. But this is the time to add richness to the story. There are berries, nuts, dirt, and water in the streams that the hero can sample.

Now for the elements.

Earth: Even in the underwater world, there are mountains, valleys, and cliffs. Lushness and barrenness. Abundant life and desserts. The same is true in a forest.

Wind: This force of nature can turn a calm flat sea into monstrous waves. It can come in many forms, waterspouts, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms. All of which can sink ships or snap trees in the forest.

Fire: Think of temperature ranges. Tropical water as warm as a hot shower to artic icebergs. Forest can have heat and cold. Also, remember that the human body temperature will change with the environment.

Water: The ocean is salty, but there are fresh water springs and blue holes that occur offshore. Where the two salinities meet, the water is very hazy. When rain hits the surface of the ocean, from underneath, it looks like the water has dimples. In the woods, there are creeks, streams, ponds, lakes, swamps, marshes with each having its own characteristics.

Did anyone see the movie, The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis? I enjoyed it. It was action packed and funny. In the movie, the fifth element was love. For authors, expand that thought to emotion and use the full range from anger to zeal.

Some well-known quotes about nature and emotion:
“moonbeams kiss the sea” – Shelley,

“There is rapture on the lonely shore” – Byron

“The tides are in our veins” – Jeffers.
Not so famous quotes:
“The waves pounded his boat unmercifully”.

“The flood cared not for the town in front of it”.
Years of working dive boats on the ocean and having to deal with rust, corrosion, waves washing gear off the deck, I tell people, “Salt water is not your friend.”

I hope this helps in stimulating ideas to have your setting become alive and a character in your story.

Good writing.
Until next time.

About Murder on Devil Ray Reef

While diving on Jesse Stoker’s boat, Cassandra, a local radio personality awaiting contract with extraterrestrials, disappears. Stoker considers her a hoaxster, but allowed the charter because the bank is ready to repossess his vessel.

Cassandra’s body is found three days later, but the M.E. finds she’s only been dead for five hours. Once it’s known that Stoker filled her tanks and she died from oxygen poisoning, he becomes the prime suspect. He’s never lost a diver before, doesn’t believe in alien abduction, and doesn’t believe she just died. To clear his name, stop a wrongful death suit, and save his livelihood, Stoker must figure out where Cassandra spent the missing days and find her killer.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |


  1. Excellent article, thanks! PS - I'm a fan of "The Fifth Element" too, LOL

  2. I knew about using the five senses when setting up the scene but the four elements is new to me. Thanks for the lesson.

  3. Really great and timely reminder to pay attention to the details. We take our senses for granted! Really enjoyed the mental shift required when thinking about storytelling under water.

    I lived on an island for five years- nothing survives salt water!