If you’re a writer (or a thoughtful reader), you’ve probably heard the phrase “setting as character.” It’s kind of an odd cliche. How can setting be a character? When people use this phrase, they mean that the setting should be so distinct that it’s almost a character in the novel.
I suspect that we’ve all experienced this in reading, a sense of being transported to another place. The Harry Potter series is an excellent example. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that I know what it feels like to ride a broomstick or play a game of Quidditch. A lot of sci-fi writers are also good at this. If you’ve read Dune, you felt and saw the planet. You knew what it was like to wear a stillsuit. You could taste the recycled water. Ugh.
If you’re writing a novel where the setting is familiar to you like your hometown, it’s not as hard to come up with details that ground your story in the setting. For example, I live in Chattanooga. If I were writing a story set here, I’d include details about the many bridges that cross the Tennessee River and give the city a European feel. I could include details about the humidity that hangs heavy in the air like moss in the trees. I could even compare the Southern cultural niceties that overlay all social interactions to the kudzu that covers the landscape. But what if you’re not writing about your hometown? What if you're writing about a time and place you never lived in? What then?
Obviously, the answer is research. But giving the reader some paragraphs of setting description doesn’t work either. Your setting needs to be integral to the story. It needs to be a supporting character that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it needs to appear to make the story possible only at this place and in this time. I believe the best way to do this is through details.
If you provide your reader with concrete details—unique sights, smells, tastes, and sounds, their minds will fill in the rest of the exotic place. But what if you can’t find the specific facts you want?
Instead of approaching research as “finding facts to fill in your story,” try to allow the facts to craft your story. For example, in the sequel to Screwing Up Time, one of the settings is a civilization that we don’t have a lot of information about. But I wanted to give the reader a sense of what daily life would be like. So I researched “daily life in civilization X.” I didn't discover what people's daily activities were, but I discovered what a visitor to the civilization might see in the streets. So I set one of the plot sequences in the city streets.
I used the same technique in another novel I wrote called Dark Mercy, which is a lit-fic set in the 1930s and 1940s in the Netherlands. I did a lot of research into the time period and tried to include important socio-cultural issues in the novel. For example, during this time, coffee drinking was a very important social ritual to the Dutch, and there were strict, unspoken rules about how it was to be done. So I made one of the plot turns take place while two women shared coffee. The woman serving the coffee was very concerned to make sure that the handles of the coffee cups pointed to the right side when the coffee was served—this was one of the unspoken rules. And I used her anxiety to influence the progression of the novel, to make this cultural issue affect the way the plot and character developed so that it wasn’t just a setting detail tacked onto the story.
When the novel was finished, I asked my mother to read it (my mom grew up in the Netherlands of the 1940s). Afterwards, she said, “When I read it, I felt like I’d been transported to my childhood. It was as if you took me there again, and I was nine years old. How could you do that?”
The answer, of course, was that I didn’t. I just gave her enough detail that her mind created the reality and grounded the plot. So when the character worried about serving the coffee, my mom experienced the character’s anxiety. My mom remembered serving coffee (hoping and praying that the coffee wouldn’t spill over the rim of the cup) and reminding herself, “Make sure the handle points to the right.” Thus, the character and plot development that happened in this scene felt like they could only happen in the 1940s in the Netherlands.
It’s those kinds of details woven into the plot that ground the story into time and place. Find what is unique in the time and culture you’re writing about and make those details part of your story. They will create the illusion of experiencing another’s life and times.
What about you, readers? Any ideas, suggestions, or examples of how to craft setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts.