As my husband drove our gold Ford F150 Lariat out of Lexington, Kentucky turning off Man 0′ War Boulevard on to Winchester Road, the site changed from stores and businesses to horse farms with black fences and pristine green pastures fronting beautiful homes – the kind of homes reminiscent of the glory days of Kentucky horse farms, large and stately. Horses grazed lazily in the fields swatting flies from their backs with their tails. Humidity laced the air causing our air conditioner to work harder than before. I opened my window just a little expecting the scent of overheated horse and manure to assault my nostrils. For just a moment my mind tricked me into believing those odors were there. Those were the smells I remembered, not the smell of exhaust mingled with hay and trees. You could no longer taste the freshness of newly cut clover on the air. Traffic whooshed by us interrupting the stillness of the farm community reminding me that “progress” exists everywhere. In that moment, a deep empathy blindsided me. It would break my heart to see those horse farms disappear to housing developments and businesses just as my friend back in Boise can’t stand to see the Boise foothills developed and forever changed in the name of progress.
I started working on this article on setting as my husband and I drove across country to visit my family in Kentucky. This trip had a second purpose because the book I recently started is set in Lexington, Kentucky, and I needed to see how the city has changed since I lived there several years ago. The scene I opened this article with drove home the importance of knowing your setting intimately. Not only was I able to see what was in front of me but my emotional connection evoked from the memories I associated with the area.
What makes a setting effective? How do you determine where to set your book? How do you transport your reader to your book’s setting? If a real place, how truthful must your setting be?
Determining the place to set your book can be a matter of personal preference, imagination, or practicality. Many authors incorporate their hometowns or their travels into their books as settings. This is a great way to honor a place you love, remember a place you long for, or share a place with your reader. Oh, and it also gives you way to write your travel expenses off your taxes. Places you visit can inform your writing and inspire your creativity even if that’s not your intention when you plan your trip. Always be aware of your surroundings so you can use them in your writing.
A large part of the two online group discussions that inspired this article dealt with the importance of getting “real” places right in a book. If someone who is intimate with the place where your book is set read it, you’d better have your facts right. Otherwise, you will lose all credibility with the reader. You can certainly make up names of restaurants, stores, and other businesses especially if something bad is going to happen in the establishment. Don’t have existing streets that run parallel to one another intersecting. Don’t make an existing small city park the size of New York’s Central Park. Don’t have your character order pork in a Middle Eastern restaurant. Know the facts before you write. Try to be as real with your setting as possible to create authenticity.
Visiting a place is always helpful when writing your setting. On such visits, keep all your senses aware at all times. Take notes, snap photos, pick up local arts and dining newspapers and magazines, and eat in the restaurant you want to use. Familiarize yourself with local cadences, colloquialisms, and mannerisms. Pay attention to how the locals dress, the automobiles people drive, and the rhythm of the area. Setting is more than a description of surroundings. It is the food the locals eat, the music they enjoy, and their interactions with each other and outsiders.
A well written setting becomes a character in the book. Think of Los Angeles in Robert Crais’s books, San Francisco in Joanne Pence’s books, Chicago in Sara Paretsky’s books, and Victorian London in Anne Perry’s books to cite a few examples. All these authors make you feel like you intimately know the cities they are describing. They transport you to the city by affecting all your senses. You touch, taste, hear, smell, and see the city.
Writing this article reminded me of a song called “I Am a Town” by Mary Chapin Carpenter. The song describes the character of a town. The following excerpt from the lyrics is an example:
I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl
I’m the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade, where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.
“I Am a Town” is a perfect example of how words can transform a place to a character. The listener is transported and connected to that small, unnamed Southern town just by listening to the words. You feel like you know the town even though it’s never given a name, and you could probably surmise it is any number of towns if you wanted. If you get the chance, read or listen to the lyrics of “I Am a Town”. Whether you’re a country music fan (not my favorite as a general rule) or not, you just may find them inspirational and even useful as you write your next setting.
Take a lesson from the writers listed above. Treat your setting like a character. Intersperse aspects of your setting throughout your book, so your reader feels immersed in your setting. Give your setting life, but don’t let it interfere with your story. Integrate your setting so the reader feels connected and transported there.
Have some fun with your setting. Use it as an excuse to travel, try a new restaurant, or visit a local attraction. Write it in a new and exciting way like you’re introducing the setting to someone you want to feel passionate about it.