So here we are, days away from embarking on the quest that is Novel in November. We’ve thought about plot (at least in theory, if not in exact detail…). We’ve perhaps gone on a first date with our characters. But one rather obvious & necessary feature still demands some forethought: Setting. As there’s no time to waste, let’s jump right in.
First, have you pinpointed the backdrop for your novel’s core idea (& the action to come)? Some key points to ponder:
This may seem like spelling out the obvious, but many writers really struggle to conjure up descriptions for their story’s events. If you’re one of that score, here are just a few tips to help you get a sense for your setting:
- Make a visit: If your character will be traipsing about in a forest, go for a walk in the woods! If he/she is undergoing experimentation in a clinic, visit your local hospital. Just be sure to take along your journal & jot down your own sensory experience. This weekend, I’ll be visiting the 17th century Reception House where my story’s main action takes place, so I shall practice as a I preach!
- Research online: Fair enough if you’ve bravely decided to set your tale in Subsaharan Africa but can’t manage to wing a trip there in the next week. Watch some videos & do your best to read up on others’ experiences.
- Make a Pinterest board: this is especially useful if your story is set in a fantastical world. I made a board for my last fantasy novel & resorted to it each time I got stuck on a description or simply needed to get a feel for the ambience.
As soon as you begin collecting sensory experiences, online facts & inspiring images, it becomes clear that it simply can’t all fit into your 50,000 words of novel. Don’t despair! Part of an author’s job is to be a connoisseur of description, selecting only the choicest, most effective details to present to his/her readers.
“But how do I know which bits to describe & which to leave to the imagination?” you ask. If your like me & get carried away with descriptions, I prescribe this simple question:
Is this description moving my story forward in some way?
If the answer is no, then put it down. Don’t waste your time waxing lyrical only to lose your reader’s interest. Or think of it this way. Every time you describe something, you press pause on the story’s action. Hence long descriptions slow the pace of your narrative whilst quick-fire, fleeting observations speed it up.
Another tip to bear in mind: Don’t waste your time describing the obvious or mundane. Put yourself in your character’s shoes & think what are the first, most stand-out things I would notice in this setting? What’s odd or out of place? Is this place new? Nasty? Amazing? Then describe it, & what makes it that way. But if you linger too long an something of no consequence to your tale, your reader will expect it to come into play. If you describe a long, dark corridor on the way to wherever your character is heading, your reader will be waiting on the edge of her seat for something to jump out from behind a door. So for your sake & the reader’s avoid red-herring descriptions.
If your writing about a historical setting, here a just a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Make it clear, but subtly: When 1 Nov. arrives & you sit down to pen your first page of historic-set fiction, how can you make it clear to the reader without spelling out in “it was the year 1776, the year America was born” fashion? Can you drop hints through objects or dialogue? Just something to consider…
- Know your backdrop: granted, you don’t need to be an expert on the socio-political climate of your chosen era before writing (in fact beware of over-researching & losing your story in facts!). But it’s good to have a sense of the big picture backdrop. Even if real historical events never come into play in your novel, how might they effect your characters situation? stresses? goals? Also, be conscious of imposing modern culture onto the past. For example, my novel is set in Jacobean England. It wouldn’t make sense to have a young aristocratic girl going into town unchaperoned… which means, I either have to create another character or create a scenario in which my lead would & could sneak off into town unnoticed.
So, on the downside, writing a historical setting will almost definitely require more research. On the up, thinking about the historical backdrop can unlock new avenues for your plot!
Finally but importantly, your setting does more than conjure pictures in your reader’s mind. It evokes the atmosphere for your entire novel, including the internal mood of your characters. Think about the mood-changing effects of light & dark, rain & sun, the first snowfall. You have the seasons & the climate at your disposal! Think like a screenwriter & set your stage for each scene: cue the lights, the wind, the thunder, &… ACTION!
So if you find yourself getting lost in long-winded descriptions this November, unable to retrace your steps to pathway of your plot, remember this one thing:
The purpose of settings is create a mood, not to describe every last detail. Think impression with a few choice details.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Fear not! Tune into this week’s Wednesday Writers’ Cafe for some exercises that will help you select & describe your novel’s settings effectively.