When I began writing novels, description was not an area of strength for me, and setting was just a place to plop my characters. Fast forward ten years and my publisher compliments my upcoming release with a “You can smell the salt in this one.” DRIFTWOOD TIDES (releasing this September) is set at the Outer banks in North Carolina. You can’t set a book a place like that without readers expecting a richly painted scene. They want to feel the cold ocean foam on their feet, feel the grit of sand between their toes, hear the seagulls circling above, see the cotton candy colors in the sunset . . . and yes, smell the salt.
1. The best way to learn to master setting is by reading other books that have done just that. One novel that sets the scene better than maybe any other book I’ve read is To Kill a Mockingbird. Here’s one example of the masterfulness of her scene-setting:
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop, grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square.” You don’t get better than that.
Another novel that nails setting is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My first novel, CROSSING OCEANS, was probably my best for setting and may give you a few ideas, and a recent release, BORN OF PERSUASION by Jessica Dotta, does a masterful job of bringing another time and place to life.
2. Go and feel the roses.
It might go without saying to go to the place you are setting your work, but I’m going to say it anyway. If you’re setting your scene in Maine, by all means go there and experience that setting. Close your eyes and listen, first to the up front sounds: sirens, traffic, subway, whatever. But don’t stop there. Listen for the underlying background noise: car doors slamming, a car alarm in the distance, children laughing, the flutter of pigeon wings. Now, listen beyond that to the softer noises until you’ve made note of all the sounds the setting has to offer. When your eyes are closed and you’re noting a particular sound, before you open your eyes, try to guess what you’re hearing.
While writing DRIFTWOOD TIDES, I sat on the beach, closed my eyes and heard what I would have guessed to be a sprinkler system rapidly firing. I knew it couldn’t be, but that’s what it sounded like. It was actually the sound of chirping chicadas and the sprinkler system description was something I was able to use to describe that sound in the book.
You can do the same close your eyes technique for smell and touch too. Write down as many descriptions and comparisons as you can while they’re still fresh in your mind.
3. If you can’t go there, the next best thing is visiting vicariously. Watch movies set where your book is, take lots of notes. Read books, magazine articles, blog posts, etc set there. Keep pictures of the inside and outside of the home, courthouse, city streets, etc. that you can continue to reference as you write. Pictures of the furrniture, toy box, anything that you might need to describe. Study your pictures, then close your eyes and imagine what sounds, smells, touches you would experience in that setting.
4. Observe the details. One little trick that brings fiction to life lies in writing in the little things that we take for granted. Not just the sandy beach, but the broken bits of seaweed and shell left in the wake of a retreating wave. The water that fills a footprint left in the sand… watch how it is absorbed back into the ground and the tiny bubbles that pop up right before it does. These are the things that will firmly plant your reader into your story.
5. Have your setting serve more of a purpose than just eye or ear candy. Setting a scene is important to ground your readers, but it should also help us to get to know your characters better. Having your character experience the setting through their unique outlook, mood and life experiences kills two birds with one stone. If your character is an Eyore type, or just feeling melancholy at the moment, then the boulder she is sitting on may feel hard and cold. If she was just proposed to by the man of her dreams, than maybe she doesn’t notice the boulder, but focuses instead on the meadow of wildflowers swaying in the soft breeze beside her. If she has just lost someone she loves, the moment may be bitter sweet. She notices the flowers, smiles, but then her smile fades when she sees how many of the daisys are losing their pedals or are drying up from the dry summer. You get the picture. And so will your readers.
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