Monday, July 19, 2010

Setting the Stage for Story...

Setting. It’s important. When done well, it can become a living, breathing character and give vital depth to any story.

Who has read To Kill a Mockingbird and not been transported to Maycomb, Alabama, where the air is scented with Miss Maudie’s flowers and you can almost feel the tension bubbling beneath the sidewalks?

Or what about the arena in The Hunger Games, which becomes as menacing as any of the human characters? Or Grandma Dowdel’s farm in Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder?

Setting is crucial, and if you can speak about the place where your book is set with some authority, you’ll have an easier time convincing readers that the world you’ve created is real and that they need to step inside.

That’s not to say setting should be a carbon copy of places that you have lived or visited. We writers need to take bits and pieces of our memories of place and translate them - make our readers understand them on an emotional level. Why did these places resonate with us? Why are they important to our characters? This doesn’t come from telling us (for example) that there’s a coffee shop on the corner, it comes from describing the smells, the sounds, the ornate tin ceiling and the "ca-ching" of the old fashioned cash register.

For my book, THE ICING ON THE CAKE, about a teenaged cake decorator, the setting came by coincidence, while I was actually quite stuck, not sure where the story was going.

In 2006, my husband and I went to a wedding in Grand Rapids, MI. We flew into Chicago and drove around the bottom half of Lake Michigan. On our way, we stopped in several of the quaint towns that dot the Michigan shore. They are quiet, cozy, welcoming and completely charming.

It didn't take me long to realize I had found my setting, and the rest of the story fell into place. My main character, Sheridan, loves her hometown. When her father is offered a reality TV show, she is faced with the possibility of leaving. But how to convince my readers that a 15 year old girl would not want to leave a small town like St. Mary (the fictional town I came up with) for super cool New York City?

The key for me was to have St. Mary become almost like a mother figure to Sheridan, representing security, safety and comfort. This was important because one of the key plot points is that Sheridan's mother is missing. Quite literally, St. Mary is Sheridan’s safe harbor. Not just a place, but something more. I guarantee I could not have successfully gotten that across if I hadn't had the experience of our time in Michigan.

Amazing how important story elements can come together when you're doing something as seemingly non-writing related as going to a friend's wedding.

Yeah. They're adorable. And don't think they're not getting mentioned in my acknowledgements.

So. Setting. Where have you found inspiration for the places your stories are set? Where do your favorite books take place? Can you imagine them set anywhere else?

Happy Monday!

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