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!