Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Story Telling—Yet More Thoughts on Setting by M.M. Gornell



A few weeks back, a wonderful letter from Bill Thornton to his sister Kate Thornton, was posted here at Writers in Residence  talking about setting, characters, and much more. His letter was eloquent and on the mark (I think!). In the same time period I wrote out some thoughts on setting for the Public Safety Writers (PSWA) newsletter. And most recently, Gayle Bartos-Poole added some very smart how-to thoughts in Location, Location, Location.And since I (clearly in good company!) also think setting is so important, I thought I might take the topic to my personal level.

When trying to figure out what to do writing-wise, I rely upon what I like to read—what pulls me into a novel and what keeps me reading. Character and Setting are always my first thoughts,with all the elements Bill and Gayle talked about coming into play. Of course, story is also important. However, I might have in my hands the most intriguing story every written, but if I don’t like the protagonist, or at a minimum, care about what happens to him or her, I won’t read the book. And equally important, if I’m not mentally or emotionally “taken away”,once again, the book won’t get read. So for me, it is so true. Setting done well is a key ingredient—actually, an essential ingredient—for an enjoyable reading experience.

Adding to those thoughts for my own personal writing, there's the additional aspect that setting has also been my story inspiration. Whether walking through a lush green evergreen forest in the Pacific Northwest, or mesmerized by the sight of long abandoned structures, silhouetted against lower Sierra foothills by a brilliant sunset, or mentally captivated by a rundown mini-mart, neglected and lonely in the Mojave desert, or standing in awe, taking in the expansive view from a Michigan Avenue high-rise apartment of Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. Add to the list a few more setting inspiration points like abandoned A-frames, Quonset huts, mining caves, defunct swimming pools—the list goes on; all with tales to tell, stories fanciful or real—all inspiration.

Which brings me back around to what I like to read. The authors I consistently read with anticipation and joy are the ones that have memorable characters that take me to a place—setting—I don’t want to leave. A place where I’m sorry I have to leave at book’s end. Developing “setting” as best we (I) can, I think is well worth the time and effort. Challenging, I think. But aiming for a strong sense of place, I also think, is a key ingredient to the “art and craft” of storytelling. Bill and Gayle talked so eloquently about setting I hesitate to add my little list. Nonetheless, here it is:

  • -         Fully developed, setting adds the underlying layer for a story—the glue so to speak that holds everything together. (Maybe not the best metaphor, but similar to the background in a photo.) It establishes a protagonist and reader firmly on the time-space-continuum, and in a particular place in the universe.
  • -         Where a protagonist “is,” determines in a multitude of ways, what and how characters face and deal with the dilemmas thrown their way. And what physical items and constraints are available, not only in daily life, but at hand to maybe save a life? Or solve a crime?
  • -         The comparison between a protagonist’s current setting versus ones from the past can add an emotional level—e.g., guilt from deeds in a past setting, hope for the future from where they are now, even being part of their understanding of the present.
  • -         Enables the reader to experience through words and a character’s eyes, the tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feel of your protagonist’s world. Emotional and visual pictures readers can’t forget. (I have several such pictures from books I’ve read that I will never forget.)
  • -         Setting is a key way to show personalities—how they deal with their environment. If a character can see, feel, love or hate a desert, a lake, a city, or???—that response to the landscape can be a key for a reader to love or hate a character.

A picture I took out my kitchen window, that along with rereading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins inspired my latest book.


21 comments:

  1. Madeline, you clearly "practice what you preach." I've just begun reading RHODES THE MOJAVE-STONE" and the visuals you give us of the desert, especially that breathtaking sunset, made me feel like I was there along with the character. And her appreciation of that sunset made me appreciate HER more and gave insight to her character as well.

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    1. Bonnie, you can't know how good it makes me feel that you appreciated the sunsets. One of my editors thought I over indulged in those descriptions, and she may be right--but just one comment like yours is so gratifying... Thank you, for your kind words!

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  2. No wonder you write the desert so well, Madeline, with that vision from your kitchen window every day! I finished RHODES last night - actually I put it down just before the last section at about 10:00, then awoke at 1:30 am to read the rest! The desert, town, castle (with its amazing, evocative rooms), and that fateful stretch of highway (as well as the Lookout) are still clear in my mind. I tend to skip over setting in my writing in favor of plot, but you have taught me to slow down, look around (smell the roses or garbage pit, if you will) and consider them a character. Thanks!

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    1. I am overwhelmed, Jackie, that you got up at 1:30 and finished my book. But what's buoyed me up the most is that you retained "pictures" from the book. I've done that with several books I've read, and they've stayed with me over the years. One was Fire Horses by R.J. Haig--and I can still see those horses. I'm so flattered you "saw" Shine, and retained the image. Thank you!!

      (and yeah, you're right, "smelling the roses" could be smelling a garbage pit!)

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  3. Just like Emily Dickinson wrote: "There is no frigate like a book to take us Lands away." Your thoughts on setting are spot-on, Madeline, especially when you said the writer must allow the reader to "feel your protagonist's world." Excellent advice.

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    1. I know we're kindred spirits when it comes to setting/location Gayle. And that 's what I love about your Johnny Casino Casebook series, I feel like I'm there, in that milieu--Hollywood and LA. You clearly "get" setting, and like what Bonnie said earlier, you "practice what you preach."

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  4. I have got to read that latest book of yours! Sounds wonderful. Hope you'll have it at PSWA conference.

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    1. Marilyn, starting to think about the PSWA Conference in July, and already getting excited, especially to see you. It's been awhile. Yes, I'll bring copies to the conference, and there will be a signed one for you, for sure!

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  5. Excellent post, Madeline, and you make me feel like I've cheated on the settings in some stories. I need to pay more attention and remember that the reader can't see what I see without establishing the setting. Thank you!
    Marja McGraw

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    1. That is so true, Marja. I can see pictures and details of my writing in my own mind, but maybe for my readers it is blurry, like binoculars with Vaseline smeared on the lens, or a hall of mirrors. or worse, a blind man stumbling along without his white cane.

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  6. I recently read How Now Purple Cow and I can still that house and the stairs (don't want to give anything away) and the restaurant. So not to worry, you certainly took me there. Your comment, though, did hit on a thought I've often remind myself. A reader can't see the picture inside my head, and need a few hints to develop there own setting picture. It's hard...

    Hope to see you again sometime soon.

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  7. Madeline,
    I love the way you use setting in your novels. When I'm reading, I feel as if I'm there - in the Mojave Desert. But, since I'm really not, I hope to travel there some day.

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    1. You know the first time I drove through this area, Patricia, before we moved here from Puget Sound, I thought it was sooooo ugly! Funny, that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. Madeline, you do know of whence you speak. Just finished A Counsel of Ravens and it brought back so many memories of my high school days in Barstow. The sunsets were glorious. Well done. Paul

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    1. Thank you, Paul! Your kind words are much appreciated. I think I learn a little more each book, about writing, about myself, and what I want to convey. In Rhodes, there's a "dreamsycle(sp) orange" sunset which while I was writing, took me back to childhood and waiting for the Good Humor (sp) truck--boy am I dating myself! I was in Barstow today,.. Thank you so much for stopping by!

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  9. Your excellent blog post added to the conversation about settings. Ironically, I just beta-read a short story filled with beautiful, evocative descriptions of a tropical paradise. I felt like I was there, and yet in this case the author's settings overwhelmed the story - her character's arc, as well as the reader, got lost in the jungle, so to speak. So I'll add the caveat: it's all about balance. Focus on quality, not quantity.

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    1. That's a good point, Miko. Setting needs to be there for a reason, and that reason dictates the length and type of description. In my case, I've found my editors are an excellent source for"quality versus quantity." Easy to get lost in jungle!

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  10. I have always been amazed by the settings in your books. How they take on the aspect of another character. Thank you for may great reads!

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    1. A Bird's Eye View of Murder (love the color of the cover) has been sitting on the table by my reading chair waiting for the perfect time far too long. I need a Frankie Chandler fix--need some smiling, and you always do that for me. So the "thank you" is right back at you!

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  11. Madeline, Rosemary tried to post a comment from London, but couldn't get it to work. She will post when she gets back to the States.

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    1. I might be a tad envious she's in London... (smile) Thanks for the note, Gayle.

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