Friday, September 16, 2011

Technical Topic -- How do we find our setting?

Someone asks, more or less --

I want to write a scene about the first kiss. I  want the setting to be special but anything I'm coming up with is a bit cliched.

What do I do?

I am reminded of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter on the bridge in Oxford, and later, 'kissing madly in a punt'.
There are romantic settings that are just exactly . . .  right. 

But if you can't find just the right place,
and you're saying to yourself -- 'Wouldn't it be romantic if they kissed at the top of the Eiffel Tower?' --
and taking the characters to France,
you could approach 'first-kiss setting' the way you would any other setting.

This leads me to my newly composed, handy-dandy

Guidelines for Good Setting --

. . . which is just my own take on this so feel free to come up with something entirely additional and contradictory.

1) Good setting lets the characters perform useful plot action.

Sometimes, we got busy protagonists.  They do not have leisure to wander off into a new setting just to lock lips.
When our hero and heroine do the Big Moment of mouth to mouth, they are simultaneously stealing a car or baking a poisoned cake or escaping from jail.

If the plot action is just speeding along and the next important plot point is they confront Uncle Ned about his gambling addiction --  then set that kiss when they're leaning against the slot machines on the grand arcade. 

One way to find the setting is to keep the protagonists moving forward through the action. 

Guideline: Where the action is, there shall your Setting be.

2) Good Setting is interesting.

Not the MacDonalds.  The cowboy bar down the street.
Not the laundromat.  The morgue. 

Guideline:  Good setting is interesting in-and-of itself.

3)  Good setting is vividly and knowledgeably described.

Unless you know what heathery hills look, feel and smell like, you probably do not want to set scenes in the gloaming on heathery hills because you will be vague and, quite often, wrong.
Many a fictional lass has laid herself down in the gorse and heather.  To which I say, 'Ouch.' 

If you want to write about a bar fight, fer Pete's sake go sit in some bars.

If you want to write about anything, take the time to look at it.  Really look.

4) Good setting reveals character.

Where possible, you put your people in scenery that matters to them or is somehow characteristic of them.

Not a stretch of anonymous beach.  A beach where they are waiting for a drug shipment.  The stretch of beach where she lost her virginity ten years ago.  The rocky cove in front of his grandmother's house.

My books open with the protagonist imprisoned in a house she knew as a child; crouched in the burned-out shell of her family home; walking mean streets she used to run as a young girl; collapsing at the threshold of her lover's headquarters.

Not random scenery.  Scenery that resonates with the POV character/protagonist.  That means something to her.

Guideline: Build character with every part of the story.  
This includes setting.

5) Good setting contrasts with the settings before and after it.

Go inside if they've just spent time outdoors.  Go quiet if they've been somewhere frenetic. Safe after danger.  Bright after dark. Crowded after solitude.  Shiny and mechanical after pastel and pastoral.

Guideline: Contrast keeps the reader from falling asleep.  

This is why we do not make a whole meal of yellow food.

6)  Good setting builds mood.

You pick the setting to display the exact type of kiss you need.

The rocking, icy-cold deck of a motorboat as they flee the Drug Lords is going to deliver a different mood for kissing than the slithery peace of the reptile cages at the zoo.

Guideline:  Mood is the grease that slides the action forward.
Apply liberally.

7.  Good Setting tells story

All by themselves, the settings and the order in which they're placed, tell your story.  Where your people are conveys meaning, symbols, impressions, emotion.

Cavern phot attrib espritdesel 
The underground cavern of Forbidden Rose is not merely a convenient place to set the action.  It calls up the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, (with a more fortunate ending.)  It's a symbol of rebirth.  The passage from the womb.  When I put my folks in that setting, the caverns themselves do a lot of the talking.

When Jess walks away from her hotel and her office, into the maze of dirty streets near the docks . . . she's not just moving geographically.  The setting tells the story of the longer journey she's making -- back to her past.   The setting is a sign of her commitment to leave safety and undertake a dangerous enterprise.

Guideline:  Use setting to show what's really going on.


  1. Wow, great thoughts on setting, Joanna! This is another one for my keeper file.

  2. Jo, as always, your insights rock my world. I'm starting Forbidden Rose tomorrow....ok TONIGHT! SQUEEE!! :)

  3. I never thought of that, Jo! My characters usually find themselves where they need to be [g] Lately, a lot of them have been on board ship...
    I'm writing a book review of the Black Hawk for my post tomorrow!

  4. Anonymous6:27 PM

    I am quietly drooling over Adrian and Justine's book. I think my most favorite part of My Lord and Spymaster was when Adrian and Jess sat on the steps in Sebastian's house. I always wondered when Adrian's story would come. November is too far away!

    Also, I love the new front page - however on my screen the buttons cover up the words 'When Love is the Most Dangerous Game of All.' Perhaps it is just my screen or you are already aware of this.

    Thank you again for the excerpt, Joanna!

  5. Hi Misty --

    I do hope you like Forbidden Rose. It's the first, and so far the only, book set entirely in France.

    I think moving out of England turns a lot of folks off.

    Maggie is a little older than Jess or Annique. I try to show that in writing her. It makes for a different 'feel', I think.

    And I sorta let myself go all purple when I was in her POV. Mostly I restrain myself. *g*

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  7. Hi Deniz --

    I dunnoh how applicable all this is to you, since I think you have a fairly good idea what your people are getting up to.

    Maybe the 'interior' shot followed by an 'exterior' shot might be worth keeping in mind. I know I always stop and ask myself whether I should take something outdoors and do some big-body action sequence. I tend to gravitate toward talking-head scenes if I don't watch myself.

    Thank you so much for the review -- whether it's good or bad.

  8. Good! Well, given that I devoured the book over 24 hours...
    I like that idea about interior/exterior. I don't do talking heads much - I don't think - but I shy away from action a lot. Must watch that tendency...

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  10. Hi Anon --

    Yes. I was thinking of Justine when I wrote that steps scene in MLAS.

    The website is just getting off the ground again. The webdesigner and I are messing around with concept and execution of this. It is, if you will, a work in progress.

    I have the same problem with that bottom line of text disappearing. The bits have to be moved around a little. I also want to sharpen up the image of the woman with the knife.

    Photoshop time. (GIMP, actually.)

    Have you ever noticed that the cat in your life just doesn't CARE that you are busy? She wants to be in your lap. Right Now.

  11. Anonymous7:30 PM

    LOL - as I am reading your comment responding to mine, my Siamese's tail is whacking my left wrist, because my lap (or her lap as she thinks of it) is not perfectly level!

    Best of luck with your site - it is always a pleasure to visit here.

  12. Somehow I missed this typically helpful post on writing. I had a feeling my heroine needed to be a particular place when I started writing. She's still there, but that's about the only thing that's survived the original opening. Now I don't feel so bad about the crap that accompanied the location. *g*

    I'm just in awe that you already knew enough about Adrian and Justine's relationship in MLAS to have that scene. At that point were you still thinking that you wouldn't write Adrian's story? Are you sure you're not a witch?

  13. All this stuff about setting can be put aside if you 'see' the scene. That's best. That's easiest. That's about always right. One ounce of visualization is worth a pound of precept. That's why you got your setting of the first scene. Your subconscious always knows.

    I did know Adrian'd been in love for a good long time, and she was a French agent. I knew she'd ended up shooting him. (I thought it would be in bed.) I didn't firm up her character till FR, though.

    I do know lots about characters that's never going to turn up in the stories. I know how Standish met Eunice, for instance. I imagine you do the same thing. You know the backstory and the spill-over after the end and all the relationships reaching out in all directions.

  14. "I imagine you do the same thing. You know the backstory and the spill-over after the end and all the relationships reaching out in all directions."

    Hmmm. Well, sort of. Backstory doesn't come naturally to me. Mainly, characters just show up in particular places, and then I have to figure out how and why they got there. Or sometimes I cheat with minor characters and draw on one of my eccentric relatives (there's an unlimited supply). Only the dead ones, though.

  15. Now, it's the other way around for me. Backstory fills my head. I have to cut it off VERY firmly to concentrate on the action of the here-and-now of the story.

  16. I'm just catching up with my reading and am so glad I caught this particular topic! It's so very helpful to hear how Justine came to you and since I see only parts of my heroine, I'm going to try to get inside her mind and see what happens. This goes into the 'file' I keep to read whenever my story begins to unravel, or become difficult. Less than a month to Adrian and Justine's story - I can hardly wait!

  17. Hi Carolyn --

    D'ya know . . . I don't really know a new character till I've written tens of thousands of words into the story. I don't 'hear' the voice.

    This is so inconvenient, because then I have to go back and make the characters sound like themselves in the early parts of the WIP. Lots of little rewriting to do.

    But I guess it's just like getting acquainted with anybody. There's a getting-to-know you time.

  18. What a wonderful way to say what it's like to get to know your characters. All your characters are so 'real' it's interesting to know you actually start your story and get quite into before you 'hear' them.

    I don't know where you find the time to answer everyone's email, but I'm so glad you do.

  19. Hi Carolyn --

    I'm going to admit, kinda shamefast, that I do responses and blogging when I just can't face the WIP any more. This is my ... secret vice, as it were.