Friday, April 28, 2017

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.

24 comments:

  1. You've caught me at a time when I'm writing a new story, and with any story I write--I almost always "see" the setting first. Sure, I have a heroine and hero and will get to them, too. But the setting-It's Texas, of course, because everything I write it set in Texas--didn't take long to form in my imagination. Name of small town" Oak Ridge--because it is Central Texas where trees and hills and water are abundant.
    I know enough now to never start a story with a description of the land. That was my first big lesson--I wanted readers to see the place as I did...but the editor cut that out right away and told me to allow the reader to "see" the setting as I go along. In others words, don't explain to the reader.
    The examples you gave are wonderful. Conagher is a perfect example. And what a wonderful plot it is.
    My daddy cut down trees right and left, with Mother pleading, "At least keep a couple around the house for shade!" Why did he? He couldn't see the land...for the trees.
    Thanks for the lesson--you are always helpful.

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    1. Celia, like you, when I first started writing, I always felt I needed to "set the scene" with a description of the physical surroundings. Now, I have to laugh--it reminds me so much of "It was a dark and stormy night..." Snoopy's masterpiece. LOL

      Why is it men always want to cut down things and prune? My dad was like that too, and it used to make Mom so mad. LOL

      Thanks for your kind words, Celia! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

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  2. WOW amazing post Cheryl. I do write historicals set in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Since we live here now, it is easy to put parts and pieces of where I established a trading post. I am trying to use the waterways and forests in all my stories and develop characters that seem real. One thing I've heard from many of my readers is that they feel like they are actually in my stories. Showing, not telling, is one of the best lessons I've learned.

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    1. Thank you, Paisley! Glad you enjoyed the post.

      This is kind of one of those pieces of "write what you know" that really can be beneficial. The story flows a lot easier if you can write about the places you've seen or lived in, doesn't it? That's why everything I write is set in Oklahoma or Texas. Although I lived in West Virginia for about 10 years, I STILL don't know enough of the actual geography (names of places, etc.) to feel comfortable writing that into a story.

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  3. Sometimes I put tidbits of scenery in to give the reader a sense of where the characters are--just a little layering. There is an occasion sometimes when the scene IS a character like a raging river taking out a bridge where the heroine is stuck in her car.
    An excellent post, Cheryl, and plenty of food for thought about what we lay down on the pages of our stories.

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    1. Thanks, Sarah. Conagher seems like a "simple" book on the surface, but I used that book so often when I taught creative writing classes. There is a TON of great passages and examples to look at for learning purposes, and Evie's growth is one of the things about her character that I really do love to watch--how she "comes around" to love the place she hated at first.

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  4. A very good story that illustrates how setting can enhance the reader experience. Of course I'm a huge fan of L'Amour's work, so you had me at the title.

    I am hoping to get to that level in my own work, but as you know, it is a progression and learning curve. My trips around Colorado do come out in those stories. Others, I'm still working on that. Great post and thank you. Doris

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    1. Doris, I remember a review I got on one of my stories that said something like, "Well, it's not Louis L'Amour, but it was a good story." LOL I remember thinking, "Yeah...here's Louis, and down below are all the rest of us trying to BE Louis." LOL I love his stories, too for their simplicity but their underlying messages. He was a master at it.

      You're right--it's a learning curve, for sure. We just have to keep plugging away! Thanks so much for stopping by and for your very kind words!

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  5. Beautiful clips. Louie L'Amour is my husbands favorite author (next to me, of course), so we have a lot of his books stashed around the house and on the truck. The clip that you posted was breath taking. Thank you for bringing it to life. Cher'ley

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    1. Aw, thanks so much Cher'ley, for coming by and taking a look and commenting. I appreciate it! I love Louis L'Amour too. One of my fondest memories was when my dad, an avid reader, asked why I liked Louis L'Amour so much. This was when I was in my 40's so he would have been in his 70's. My dad always liked to read stories about history--not so much "fiction" but stories that were based on real people or autobiographies. I told him he should try one and he'd see. I had gone to a used book store and bought several -- bought all the Sacketts and started on the pile of the others, so I had probably 25 of them but had read maybe only 15 or so. After Dad read the entire Sackett series he asked, "Do you have MORE?" LOL I went and bought one of every LL book they had at the book store and took them down to him. I said, just loan them back to me when you're done. I think he read every single one.

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  6. Cheryl, you chose one of my favorite Louis L'Amour novels. Another is FALLON. Actually, I like all of his westerns. Setting is important in most of my books and I choose it carefully. Even though the settings are fictional, they must be believable and have an affect on the story.

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    1. You're right, Caroline--I think that's why I don't want to write about places I haven't been or know about--UNLESS it's a world I created. LOL Not that I CAN'T do it, but it takes a LOT of research--I want the details to be right. I read somewhere that Diana Gabaldon had never been to Scotland when she wrote her Outlander series. That just amazed me, because it was so realistic. I loved Fallon too, Caroline.

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  7. This makes me think I need to completely rewrite my work in process.

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    1. SKC512, I wouldn't completely rewrite it--it's true that location is SOMETIMES of the utmost importance, as in Conagher, to flesh out Evie's character and further the plotline--but it doesn't always play such an important part--at least not to that extent. Look at your WIP and truly evaluate how much of a role the location plays in it before you decide to ditch it and start over. That's a lot of work to throw away! :(((

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  9. I never thought about setting as being a character. But I can see how that correlation is made. Making that place come "alive" is so important to the reader. Great post!

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    1. Thank you, E! Not every book/story will have a location that means so much to the story as Conagher or some of the other examples out there, but I really love those ones that DO--and I love the ones where weather plays a big part in the story--snowstorms, tornadoes, etc.

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  10. Great post, Cheryl. I loved Sweet Savage Love and other of Rosemary Rogers' books. She opened my eyes to how much emotion, adventure and setting could transport me into her characters' world. Those three elements always play a large part in my stories, and setting can at times act as a character. Currently, I'm working on a book set in France. The settings are a real challenge to research, but they are vital to the story. My four years of high school French are coming in handy! :)

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    1. Hi Lyn! I still love SWEET SAVAGE LOVE and some of RR's other books--that one was my favorite though. I still have a very worn copy of it that I sometimes take out and read bits and pieces from. I would love to have the time to just sit down and read it again from start to finish. ONE OF THESE DAYS! LOL

      That's really neat that you're daring enough to set a story in France! I admire you--I wouldn't know where to begin. My WIP is about the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. I've lived here all my life but for this story there are some things I have to research. I do have a dear friend who is an expert and teaches all kinds of tribal law, interactions, history, and so much more--so he's been a wealth of information for me.

      I do remember a little of my high school French. But my Spanish comes easier. Thanks for stopping by, and I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!

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  11. When I was writing my Yellowstone books, I never even thought about the setting being a character. I've had countless people tell me the setting is a character in these books. I've come to realize that without it, the books wouldn't be what they are. For me, setting is extremely important, and I guess I just add it in as part of the story in all my books.

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    1. Peggy, when you write the wonderful stories you write that are set in a specific place, I think setting is doubly important because people are expecting to read about a location they've come to know and love through YOUR BOOKS! Yep. You have really created a world within a world--because for many of us who have only HEARD of Yellowstone and never been there, your eyes are the first real up-close look we've had into that place. So everything that happens there is going to make that particular place even more real to us because we are seeing it through your characters' eyes, not just reading facts about it. Keep up the good work, Peggy!

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  12. Wonderful post and comments here! Thanks, Cheryl, for such a vivid explanation. xo

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    1. Tanya, thank you for coming by and reading and commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Conagher is one of my favorite books (in case you couldn't tell) and Sweet Savage Love...OMG. Shane is on my keeper shelf, too. Love them all!

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  13. Do you know that I've never read Conagher? That shows you that for years I didn't take the time (blast it!)to read such great and meaningful stories as I was wrapped up in the health field and never took the time to read such. By golly, I have it on my list. But I too believe that the setting most definitely usually plays a very important part in the telling of a story. The wildness, the lonliness and separation of an area can add and make a story stronger and so much more meaningful and increase the emotions. I look forward to reading this as I think we must always keep the settings in mind when deciding to where to place our stories. thanks for an eye opener and great reminder to pay attention to just exactly our settings can make our stories so much stronger and meanful. Great Post. So sorry I'm just catching up. Over late as usual.

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