Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The importance and influence of setting

Blue Ridge

I’ve been thinking about setting because I’m working on two stories in quite different environments. One is in Mexico and the other the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountain setting is near me and I can easily go there. Mexico, especially the jungle in Chiapas, is much more difficult. I spent some time in Toluca and loved it, but I never got to Chiapas. It’s requiring a lot of research.

Setting, or place, has several functions in a story. The simplest is that it provides background for your characters if you use something well known or that has a character of its own. “He’s from the Bronx.” “She’s from Savannah.” These statements give an initial impression of the character based on our ideas of these places. You may go on to add detail or provide more specific information, but the reader still has certain expectations. We don’t expect the character from the Bronx to be slow-talking and laid back, and we’d be surprised to find the Savannah character edgy and in-your-face; if this were the case, you’d have to explain why.

On the road to Tenango
Setting also provides a backdrop and color for your story. Streets, buildings, restaurants, or some wild, rugged terrain—it all depends on your story and what you want to happen. Most people write what they know or have a good chance of finding out. I wouldn’t set a book in Alaska because I doubt if I could get enough of a feeling for it from books and movies or the Internet, but I could set one in Atlanta or most towns in the South. Even Texas, in the last few years, has taken on a more “cowboy” character and would be harder to write about in depth.

These days, if you chose a place you’re not familiar with, you can easily find pictures and information about restaurants, streets, businesses, and places of interest on the Internet. But be sure you’re correct. If you can find someone who’s spent time there, try to interview them or have them review your story for accuracy. They may be able to add some details you wouldn’t otherwise find, such as smells, sounds, whether it’s windy or the air is visibly polluted.
Threatening storm over TeoTenango

Setting also affects the characters’ attitudes and expectations. If they live in a small town with a strong religious community, it might influence their actions in certain situations, or it could provide part of the conflict. Think what kind of setting would add to your story. What could enrich it?

I have my work cut out for me, but I love both places, so it's fun.