Craft Challenge — Setting the Mood

jamesriver31280_small1Good morning! 

I’ve just returned from a beautiful place – the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas – and it’s got me thinking about story settings.   Not everyone cares as much about setting as I do, but I have to have settings for my stories that speak to me at a deep, gut level.  My settings are as much a character as any person in my stories, and they have personalities, just like the people.  Neglecting your setting means you are neglecting a layer of your story that can reflect mood and emotion, provide symbolism, help you develop your character subtly, or even provide you with a marketing hook.  Yes, I prefer craft, but a writer these days can’t ignore marketing.

So, what do I mean by this?  Think about your childhood home (or another place that you know very well).  If you were to return there today what would you see?  Smell?  Hear?  Remember?  What emotions would you feel? Is there a place that holds a special meaning for you in the house or yard (good or bad!)?  Were there things in the house that symbolize something to you?  Did the weather of the place effect (or reflect) your feelings about it?  The architecture?  Take two or three minutes and make a quick list.  Don’t think too hard. 

Now, in a paragraph or two set the scene for a story in that house.  Imagine your protagonist returning there.  Reveal (show!) how the protagonist feels about this place through your description as much as possible.  Set the mood for the story with your setting.  You might even try using the same setting for two different sorts of stories (mystery vs. quirky comedy, for example) and see how you either choose different details or describe the same details differently to reflect the different moods of the stories.

Here’s an example from my book Daring the Highlander.  AiligMacLeod is returning home after a short, but life altering, absence:

Assynt Castle crouched amongst piles of soot-encrusted snow.  Its gray imposing bulk uncomfortably straddled the narrow strip of land between the glorious open freedom of the white clad mountains and the dark, frigid depths of the frozen loch.

Heavy gray clouds raced across the sky, spitting icy pellets down his neck, pulling his attention from the castle and what awaited him there.  He watched the clouds flee the glen, driven by the rising wind and, for just a moment, he considered following them.

Can you tell what Ailig is feeling about his home?  Is he happy to be there?  What sort of welcome is he anticipating?  Is he arriving with good news or bad?  This is at the very beginning of the story.  Can you tell what the general mood of the story will be?

I’ll post another example or two tomorrow, in case you need a little more inspiration.

Okay, show me what you can do!  Please share your exercises in the comments!



6 Responses

  1. Hi Laurin,
    Welcome back! This is my entry for this morning. I told you that I’m working on something DARK, so going out and riding this morning with Hana was a nice break.
    Here’s my story:

    Hana reined Fancy in on the top of the hill so she could admire the view and gather her thoughts. Fancy pawed the frozen ground and tossed her head. Her breath was visible in the crisp morning air.

    Wood smoke from the houses below drifted lazily up and added to the pine scent of the trees.

    The sun was a weak sliver behind low moving clouds; even so, the vista was breathtaking. This was home. Her home, the land she loved. The town, the rolling hills, the preserved woodlands. There were trees here that her great great grandfather had planted with his own hands. The lumber for their house and barns came from their own mills.

    Pride raised gooseflesh on Hana’s arms under her thick riding jacket. She breathed deeply and caught a familiar scent. Tony must have been wearing her coat this week, it smelled of him. A boy smell, horse, gunpowder, shaving soap; even though there was no more hair on her little brother’s chin than on her own.

    Hana smiled. It was nice to have everyone at home for the holiday. And, she admitted to herself the best part was Ronnie. He had sent a letter saying that he would arrive today. Hana had been so antsy when she woke up that she had saddled Fancy immediately after breakfast and gone out to ride away her jitters.

    She was worried that she’d throw herself into Ronnie’s arms as soon as she saw him. She didn’t want to reveal too much in case his feelings for her had changed. It had been six months since she’d seen him. A lot can happen when a man is away that long.

    After drinking in the last of the view, she urged Fancy into a fast gallop and rushed head long into her destiny. Fancy needed little encouragement and Hana gave her her head. The wind teased the ribbon out of her long pale hair and it streamed out behind Hana in perfect mimicry of Fancy’s flowing tail.

    Soon they were home. There was a car just rounding the curve in the drive.

    Hana handed Fancy off to Gerald the groom. She stood on the drive, holding her breath, her chest tight, waiting for the car door to open.

    The door opened, Ronnie stepped out. He gazed at her. A blazing smile broke over his features. She released her breath. Her chest and throat flooded with warmth. He opened his arms and Hana walked into them. This was home too. This was where she belonged.

    Karen Schindler

  2. Karen — really nice, evocative piece. I especially like all the sense details. Personally, I find it hard to get smells into my writing and you’ve done a great job of getting that in, too! WTG!

  3. Thanks Laurin,
    After I submitted it, I reread the instructions and was worried that I hadn’t caught what you were looking for as far as scenery description. I think the reader can tell how the character feels, but if romance was my genre, I think I’d go into more descriptive details about what the town looked like, add a really interesting church spire, describe the white gravel in the winding driveway in more detail, that kind of stuff. But since I write quick snappy stuff with a lot of humor, I tend to drive the character to get to a conclusion.
    (which can be a lot of fun in a sex scene.) LOL
    Which is what I happen to be working on today. A really nice steamy sex scene. A GREAT way to spend a rainy morning.
    I hope someone else comes in to play this week. I left a note at Jake Nantz’s site, The Penn Ferno, so maybe more people will poke their heads in this week. If not, hey, I’ll have two of your books for my reading pleasure. Oh, wait are you offering a prize this week?
    Thanks for the exercise to keep the rust off.
    Karen Schindler

  4. No prize this week. By all means invite your writing friends to come and take the challenge!

  5. Darn,I wanted to start a Laurin Wittig library. I guess I’ll have to tell the contractor to stop adding that extra wing….

  6. LOL! Stick around. You never know when I’ll offer up a prize for taking a writing challenge!

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