Craft Corner: Strong Settings

Welcome to the Class of 2k21 Craft Corner! These posts will be dedicated to sharing writing tips and tricks we’ve picked up on our journeys to publication. Each month features a new theme with insights from members of the Class of 2k21; this month, we’re discussing writing strong settings.

Whether you are a long-time creative with too many ideas to wrangle or a beginner with no idea where to start, we hope you’ll find something you can apply to your writing journey. Let’s get started!

Joan F. Smith: Shhh, tell no one: setting is runner-up (and sometimes the frontrunner!) to my favorite part of writing. Setting impacts every aspect of a novel, and works in mysterious ways to set the tone, aid in plot points, and sometimes, it even becomes a character. Because of my own background as someone who lost a parent to suicide, I had my main character Lila in The Half-Orphan’s Handbook in my head for years, but it wasn’t until I read a story about grief camps formed after September 11th--and the subsequent closure of these camps once kids “aged out” and grew up--that I had a place to send her. To create the most lifelike settings, I rely on the tried and true use of the senses. This can be a fun exercise for your characters, too, because everyone has a different interpretation of their surroundings based on how they experience the world through senses.

Megan E. Freeman: Because of the premise of my book ALONE, the setting became one of the central characters. Maddie is the only human in most of the story, so she interacts with the Colorado setting the way characters in other books interact with one another. This forced me to think about setting in multiple ways, and to really study the impact that every aspect of the setting was having on her. Time is a huge factor, as are geography and seasons and climate and weather and era. How do all the different aspects of setting aid or inhibit the character’s goals? How might the setting be leveraged to raise the stakes or increase tension or conflict? How can the setting become a hurdle for the character to overcome or offer refuge when the character is in peril? Thinking about all the different aspects of setting—the obvious and the nuanced—will open up a whole palette of colors and textures with which to paint your story.

Jessica Vitalis: I believe writing settings is one of the most important tools in any writer’s toolbox because it allows the writer to convey information about the point-of-view character’s emotions by showing us how they are processing their environment without the author having to tell us. For example: instead of writing “Jane is frightened,” an author can write: “Jane cowered under the towering oak, its strong branches folded over her in a protective canopy.” I’ve found A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting by Mary Buckham to be an invaluable resource for learning to use settings to convey emotional resonance on the page. It’s also important to look for places where you can use the setting to naturally reinforce your story’s themes; The Wolf’s Curse is about death so I used the seaside setting to create details reinforcing this theme (the superstitious villagers believe that stars are actually candles lit by their loved ones after sailing to the Sea in the Sky).

Jennifer Adam: I didn’t realize how sensitive I was to my own environment until I married my husband and moved to his family farm. I had grown up outside San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago and suddenly finding myself in the middle of rural nowhere felt so liberating. I could finally take a deep breath and listen to silence. It made me think about how we respond emotionally and physically to the area around us. And as I compared my new community to the ones I had left, I started thinking more deeply about how places shape us. My experiences on the West Coast were VERY different than my experiences on the East Coast, and Chicago was another new adventure. Everything from weather patterns and natural habitats to popular foods and slang expressions were different. I noticed that people responded accordingly. Now, as a writer, I like to treat setting as another character in the book because it can have such a profound impact on character and story development. Whether we consciously realize it or not, our environments have an impact on our thoughts, expectations, assumptions, and opportunities so I try to show that in my stories. And I love using a story’s setting to explore themes and emotional arcs in a metaphorical way.

Thanks for joining us! Craft Corner will be back in June with thoughts on writing dialogue. See you then!