Thursday, February 13, 2014

Having a Strong Setting can be the Proving Ground for a Writer.

"Everything in its Place..."

Autumn labyrinth, Jacel Yerka Modern Polish Painter

Slayton House Andrew Wyeth 1968

Fiction is made up of a handful of basic ingredients which include character, plot, point of view and setting. All essential parts of good storytelling. Yet, for many writers today, setting appears to be the least important ingredient. Why?

Of course no writer can expect a story to take place in a vacuum. We know we need to set a place for our story. It's very easy to set up the time in which the story is taking place. But how important is where it’s taking place?

To begin with, why have we chosen when and where our particular story is taking place? Is it because our plot demands an historical setting, a modern day setting, a futuristic dystopian setting, a school, an orphanage, a lake, an ocean, a castle, a farm or city in Europe or Asia or North America ... or on another planet ... or in a parallel universe?

Once that is determined, how involved should that setting be in our story?

Eudora Welty wrote, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?”

However, writer Jeffery Deaver writes: “Rule one: Write about settings you're familiar with.”  

Is this really the number one rule? 

It is true that writing about a place you live in, and know well, is a good basis for a novel, in many ways - but there are times you might want to move into settings that are historical, or from your imagination. 

If I am researching an historical setting as I did for Winter Shadows, then I know I must "research myself" into that familiarity, and be true to the time. Reading about an past era and doing careful research is the way I approach it. But photos and paintings from the times can, and do, help me a lot. It might help you, too, once your research is under way.

Winnipeg Snow Storm 1902, F. M. Armingtom

Impressions of London, Anders Zorn, 1890

 The Arrival of Rural Teachers, Vasily Perov, 19th C


The same goes for a fantasy or science-fiction setting. I owe it to my reader to have a clear vision of my setting when I write a fantasy. I have to know it as well as I know the street I live on. And I must paint my readers strong images of that place -  using words -  so that it becomes as real to them as it is to me.

The Merman King, (From the Little Mermaid), Edmund Dulca, 1882-1953

Underwater Life, Jacek Yerka, Modern Polish Painter

Double Life, Jack Yerka, Modern Polish Painter

As a fantasy writer, if your setting is not “real” to you, if you don’t understand fantasy - haven't read any - or have decided that movies and other writers can help make up some kind of useful fantasy world, I would suggest that you think again. I doubt you you will engage the reader in your characters lives and story as well as you might if you haven't created a living, breathing distinct and real setting for them to discover. 


Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “You can exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are.”

Ernest Hemingway wrote about setting as being an integral part of storytelling and this is vital to me as well. “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

In my opinion, truer words were never written!You can’t have one ingredient without the other or that cake just isn't going to rise!

John Gardner  agrees: “He (the writer) must shape simultaneously (in an expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others; he must make his whole world in a single, coherent gesture, as a potter makes a pot...” 

You can’t have one without the other....

So why do some writers see the various settings in their  novel much like a constructed set on a stage .... mainly as background for the action of the characters? Their settings tend to be mainly static, not interactive, until the writer decides to push them around to prepare for another scene or changes the lighting.

As a writer, my settings become as vital to my story as any character in my novel. In fact, my settings tend to become pretty important “characters” themselves in the way that they dramatically affect my human or fantasy characters.

A number of writers have told me that when they write, they really can't visualize the setting their characters are living in. One writer brushed it off - and told me he leaves the setting for later “inputs.”

(As a short aside, my writer friend, Melanie Fishbane wrote on Facebook today, "I had that moment when I was looking at someone and that person triggered me into thinking about one of my characters, which got me thinking about my character's hair and how I would describe it." 

This is so important! This writer is using what I call her "visual" brain to create her character. 

Sometimes I wish that all writers would take city or landscape painting lessons, in order for them to really understand  setting. They would be forced to grow new "eyes" if they had to paint what they were seeing! Then when they came to write their setting, they will have a much more intimate knowledge of how to paint with words. But taking a load of writers off to paint isn't going to happen, is it? 

However, I feel it is important for writers to consciously discover ways of developing that part of the brain that has "stopped seeing" or has not developed fully. We all have it in us. We just need to help it grow.

Other writers might disagree. They would claim, that character and dialogue and plot are far more important. Of course character and dialogue are critical! Crucial. But for me, as a writer and a reader, so is setting, but in a very different way.

As a reader, I want to see the setting in my mind’s eye when I begin a novel. As a writer, I feel it is my duty to describe the houses, or the fields of grain or the horses drawing ice out of the frozen river - or any other setting -  with details, images, smells, sounds, and touch that can be developed in the visual and sensory part of reader's brain.

I feel my reader will appreciate the feel the grass under their feet, or the hot desert sands on their skin; or hear the drizzle of rain, the plop of snow off the roof; the hush of silence; or the cry of anguish echoing down a dark hallway in a strange new world. And they will be more  deeply involved when that setting has its impact on the main characters. 

For those of you who want to be writers, this doesn't mean you need reams and reams of description. This is where the “art”, the consciousness of your visual and sensory awareness comes in. This is where the real work of a writer is tested. This is your proving ground.

Can you describe the setting without taking up pages and pages of the novel doing it? Of course you can.

When I am writing, all of my senses are alert to colors, weather, temperatures, dust, blowing leaves .... water smacking against a dock or canoe; snow blizzards that freeze your lungs; the strange room across the hall that has guttural noises emanating from it; the fantasy world of purple deserts and waters mazes; and even a soft and cozy day looking out of an old stone house in 1857.  My writing isn't perfect, I'm still developing as a writer, but involving my reader is my aim!

All of my settings have to affect my own senses of taste, sound, hearing and touch – and they must be clear and strong in my head, so that I can create them for the reader.

How do you introduce and wind the setting throughout the story? 

1. Firstly, I would suggest that you work your setting in when it is needed, not after you write the book. Because, remember, how you use your setting will have an impact on your characters and if you tack it in later you will be missing a great opportunity to involve the setting and the characters with each other. I try to have my characters very aware of where they are - by not just looking at it but "feeling" it. 

2. You, the writer, don’t have to describe it for your reader. Don't tell us what it looks like. Let your characters and their reactions describe it - this will create a rich evocative setting. 

3. Try to trim your characters' descriptions down into short paragraphs and sentences here and there, to  allow the setting to flourish in the reader’s mind and to become a character on its own.

Once again, the old argument arises, why is setting that important - as long as the character development is there and the dialogue is there and the tension of the story is there?  

Because the world we, ourselves, live in day to day has an impact on us whether we are consciously aware of it or not – and it does affect us every moment we are awake; whether it is sitting in a dusty library room; an uncomfortable chair in a concert hall; riding through the clouds in a stuffy plane; sitting on a bed while rain drips in through the roof into a tin bucket; or walking anxiously down an unfamiliar dark street alone. 

3. For me, at least, there must always be a kind of lively exchange between character and setting. Setting will definitely affect how a character reacts to things going on in the story. In fact, setting can affect the way a story moves forward – if the place itself has a determined say in what happens.


In my novel, Who Is Frances Rain? the island on Lizzie’s grandmother’s Northern Manitoba Lake is an important setting that has its own set of criteria. This is a place I know like the back of my hand. I have painted many scenes from it and thousands of photos. 

On this island, Lizzie McGill is able to see a woman from the past. This is when the setting of the island takes on a life of its own - changing shape, altering weather during the summer to deep snow, to harsh winds and rain. It is the unexpected in setting that is intriguing to me both as a writer and as a reader.

The Marsh in the Bay, Oil on Canvas, Margaret Buffie

Just Before the Storm, oil on Canvas, Margaret Buffie

Sun Rising on the Bay, Photo by Margaret Buffie


My latest novel, Winter Shadows is set in 1857 along the banks of the Red River in Manitoba in the deepest part of winter that leads up to Christmas. I know I would let my readers down if my characters in the past and present didn't interact with the beauty and the steely cold of that setting!

Many of my stories link spirits from the past to young adults in the present. Each of my settings is different, but each place changes and evolves, like the characters, until, sometimes, it feels as if the story is controlled by a hidden hand that has a definite purpose in affecting the characters in a particular novel.

Church and School at upper settlement  1820

Red River House at St. Andrew's Photo by Margaret Buffie

Governor's House Kitchen Lower Fort Garry, c. 1850's 
Photo by Margaret Buffie

Captain Kennedy's House, St. Andrew's Photo by Margaret Buffie

The same is true of my fantasy series, The Watcher, The Seeker and The Finder, known as “The Watcher’s Quest Trilogy. The ideas for this story came partly from research into Celtic legends, but the story and settings are all from my own imagination. And to me they grew to be very real. My readers have said the same thing many times. In science fiction and fantasy, setting becomes entirely new worlds! The covers give a strong hint that setting is definitely important in this series!


When we talk about setting, imagine  Charles Dickens without the vast corruption and madness of London of the 19th C ..... 

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, Sir Samuel Luke Fildes,  1874

Photographer unknown, Dicken's London, c middle 19 C.

Street Locksmith, London Photographer, John Thomson 1877,

....or Arthur Conan Doyle without his own vision of London which his character Sherlock inhabits.When I join the enigmatic genius Sherlock Holmes as he moves with lightning speed through the dark and cluttered world of London and late Victorian England I have a different, but very personal interaction with that setting.

Foggy London, Photographer unknown

November Moonlight, John Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893

What would Alice have without Wonderland; or C.S. Lewis’s characters Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter without Narnia. And there a many other examples to choose from.

This is why when I read Georges Simenon's books about Chief Inspector Maigret, I travel around Paris alongside the comfortable, intuitive detective Maigret in these splendid books, and follow him as he moves through every human strata of that amazing city of the mid-twentieth century - as well as all the other places he travels to in France. And  a great part of my enjoyment is my complete involvement in the settings - for I follow right behind Maigret while he searches, investigates, and muses on his cases inside the sawdust floored bistros, the rich homes, the poor apartments, and the quiet streets that his prey inhabit. 

Maigret paints his world so that I can see the earthy tones, the dark shadowy streets, the gay sunny mornings full of flowers and I can inhale the smells of French cooking and the tastes of dark red wine and cognac and coffee in those old bistros or in Mrs. Maigret’s French kitchen; and I can hear the distant sounds of taxis, and horses …. and the tap of high heeled shoes moving through the night.

Bistro, Maurice Utrillo, 1883-1955

Paris Kafe, Konstantin Korovin

Paris Boulevard, Konstantin Korovin, 1939 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:  “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”

Children’s writers seem especially to know how important setting is. One of the most beautiful pieces of writing that involved a number of important settings, that I have read for any age, can be found in British writer Jani Howker's, Badger on the Barge. 

I wrote an earlier blog on Janni Howker. Others like Alison Prince, Penelope Lively, Ruth Park, Philippa Pearce, Karen Cushman, and many other writers, who wrote and continue to write, sensitive stories about children and young adults, that always have a deep connection to setting. 


Jane Findlay said...

This is a wonderful blog for a new writer. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this very much!

Margaret Buffie said...

Glad it was helpful!

Margaret Buffie said...

So happy that you liked it!