Monday, January 28, 2013

Is Your Setting Another Character? by Cheryl Pierson


Location. Setting. Why is it so important to the stories we read and write? It seems obvious in some cases. In others, there could be a 'hidden' agenda. It can actually become another character.

Let's take a look, first, at the importance of setting to our genre, or sub-genre.
Fifty years ago, the choices were limited. Regencies and Westerns were prevalent sub-genres in the historical category, and mysteries and detective stories captivated the 'contemporary' nook. Science fiction was still relatively uncharted.
The setting of a novel was a definitive device, separating the genres as clearly as any other element of writing.

The glittering ballrooms and colorful gowns and jewels whisked historical romance readers away to faraway, exotic locales. Sagebrush, cactus, and danger awaited heroes of the western genre, a male- dominated readership.



But something odd happened as time went by. The lines blurred. Rosemary Rogers combined the romance of exotic places with the danger of an action plot, and an unforgettable hero in Steve Morgan that, had a man picked up 'Sweet Savage Love' and read it, he certainly could have identified with.


By the same token, the male-oriented scenery accompanied by the stiff, stylized form of western writers such as Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage, The Last Trail) gave way to Louis L'Amour (Conagher, the Sackett series) and Jack Schaefer (Shane, Monte Walsh).

Why is the evolving change in description of location so important? In older writings, many times the location of a novel was just where the story happened to take place. Often, the plot of the story dictated the setting, rather than the two forming any kind of 'partnership.'

But with the stories that came along later, that partnership was strengthened, and in some cases, location became almost another character in the plot.

Take, for example, Louis L'Amour's 'Conagher.' As he describes the heroine's (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive. Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see. The underlying message is, "The land is what we make of it."

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence. She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she'd first laid eyes on.


The land is beautiful, but unforgiving. Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn't know what has happened to him. She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.
In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds. The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie. Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East. One of them says to Evie something to the effect of "I don't know how you can stand it here."

This is Evie's response to her:
"I love it here," she said suddenly. "I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it's in the wind.

"Oh, it is very hard!" she went on. "I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances. The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes. But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines. Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there"–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–"until I can see the other side…if there is another side."

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate. If that's not romance, I don't know what is.

In your writing projects, what importance do you give setting in your description, plot, even characterization? Within 40 pages of 'Conagher', we understand that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie's character. She can't leave it, and it will never leave her.

I'd love to hear from you about settings in stories that you've read or written that have played an important part.

23 comments:

  1. One of my favorite western-themed books Centennial by James Michener really has the community become a "character" as it is born, grows, evolves over a century. Great post, Cheryl. xo

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's interesting, Tanya, because that's kind of the theme we're working with on the Wolf Creek series that the Western Fictioneers are putting out. Wolf Creek is the community where everyone practically has a secret, so the town itself becomes a character.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  3. Cheryl--you have such a way with words and descriptions. This post was so well done,I had tears in my eye when reading how the heroine began to see the land. I think lonliness is almost the saddest thing in the world. Conagher is, yes, a great romance. Thanks for reminding us about this wonderful story, and equating the heroine's feelings with the look of the land.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Celia, I think loneliness is, like you say, the saddest thing in the world. And that's why I loved Conagher so much--he and Evie both needed one another on a different level other than just the sexuality of it.You just know they're finally both going to be happy. Thanks so much for your very kind words, my friend.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great post. I use setting as another character in my romantic suspenses and mysteries. I adored the line about music being the wind through the trees. Nature is a great source of my inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you, Maggie! I love that line too--I have a book of Louis L'Amour poetry--it's really pretty stuff.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ooooh, Louis L'Amour. Love all of his books. This was a favorite. Loved Last of the Breed where the land also plays a huge part in the story.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh, Anny, Last of the Breed was SOOOOOO good! I loved that one, too.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  9. Cheryl, Conagher was one of my favorite books even before I saw the wonderful movie. In most of my books, the locale is a definite character in the story. Loved your post. You have such a way of expressing exactly how I feel. Bless you.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Caroline, I believe that is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. I cherish that.

    I loved the movie of Conagher, but have taught this book in several classes on fiction writing, because of all the nuances in it. Such a great story, isn't it?
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wonderful post, Cheryl. Thinking of your setting as a character is so helpful to me as a writer, too. I know that Joss Whedon is a great proponent of this, too. The ship "Serenity" in the series, Firefly was a character unto itself. And who could not think of the Enterprise as a character on Star Trek? Some of my favorite books were so memorable for the setting as much as the people. Manderley in Rebecca, Hogwarts in Harry Potter, and we all remember Scarlett's soul-deep connection to Tara. Anyway, I really enjoyed your post. :) ~ Ashley

    ReplyDelete
  12. Ashley, my kids got me hooked on Firefly. And you're right, the Enterprise is certainly a character, isn't she? Lots of great examples here--who could forget Scarlett and her connection to Tara? And I guess along those same lines, Brigadoon and Camelot were both characters as well.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  13. I still have my copy of Sweet Savage Love and I did love Steve Morgan. :) I use the setting of Placerville, CA, because it's where I live and I use bits a pieces of the area to enhance my stories or become a part of them. I agree setting can make a difference.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Paisley, I have 2 copies of that book, and I never loan them to anyone now after my sister lost the copy I loaned to her years ago. LOL I've bought two of them in the years since and they never leave the house. What was it about Steve that made us love him? I still can't figure that out, because he truly seemed in most places not to care for Ginny except in the bedroom. But there was something in him that we wanted to love and DID love, just like Ginny did. I always write about Oklahoma/Indian Territory and/or Texas in my stories because these are the areas I'm familiar with. Lots of local history and color.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wonderful post, Cheryl! I, too, love Conagher. I also adore The Shadow Riders. It's a love story between brothers, parents and adult children, and of course a man and woman. Texas and Mexico settings are vital to the story.

    The same goes for my own books. Whether it's the irrigated trees of Salt Lake City, a high mountain silver camp, a windy Texas prairie, or Rainy Mountain Creek in Indian Territory, all are characters in themselves.

    Thanks for making me realize this!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thank you, Lyn! Is there a BAD Louis L'Amour book out there anywhere? LOL I really enjoy his stories. I remember the Shadow Riders well. I used to work at the Cowboy Museum here in Oklahoma City and they had a bunch of the stuff used in the movie there in the museum. I had read the book but had not seen the movie. You know, although the movies of his works are really good, I still find myself liking the books better because of the description. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  17. I loved Conagher. I thought it was such a magnificent idea to write those notes and turn them loose in the tumbleweeds.
    Scenery is a very important in my westerns and, in For Love of Banjo, the trenches of WWI gave the story the true dismal conditions and horror of war to Banjo's story.
    Of course, as you mentioned, science fiction requires the scenery be very important and I hope I was successful in creating the world of Winatuke in my upcoming surgery.
    Along with scenery, weather also sets an emotional tone to a story. A bright, sunny afternoon in an orchard evokes happiness whereas a stormy night on a desolate more depicts heavy hearts, danger or gloom.
    Great article today, Cheryl.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Interesting post. I think the best books are the ones that the setting is an integral part of the whole book. We do, after all, flourish or struggle according to our environment.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Sarah, you did a great job of description of the trenches and the conditions in FOR LOVE OF BANJO! I felt like I was right there...(SHIVER!) Yes, I think that in some books/stories the setting is more important to the story than in others, but it's always a factor to some degree. You know another sci-fi story that the setting is another character in is 2001:A Space Odyssey. Remember when Hal the Computer says, "I can't do that, Dave." Oh, my lord. Can you just imagine what must have gone through his mind right then?
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  20. Paty, that's true. And I think in Evie's case she struggled at first, but then as she began to understand the land better, she became a part of it and flourished.
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  21. Great post, Cheryl.

    I'm going to have to find a copy of Conagher. Sounds like a must-read story. I'm intrigued by the tumbleweed notes. Wish I'd thought of it.

    I read Sweet Savage Love as a teen. It's been ages.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Penny, I have wished so often that I'd thought of the tumbleweed/note idea. And to write a story like that now would be a recognizable copy of the original, so I'll have to just admire that genius idea from afar and think, WOW. LOL Ah, Sweet Savage Love...that was the first romance novel I ever read. I bet I've read it 10 times. LOL Thanks so much for coming by!
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!