Essential Elements for Setting
By Linda Carroll-Bradd
Some writers can start with two people talking, these people could be naked and sitting (what type of chair?-see, I’m already looking for details) in a totally white room. Not me, I need to know where the characters are and where the bulk of the story will occur. Those details help me mold my characters and give me insight into plot points.
Geography—driving conditions, names that are generic for the area, what agriculture is nearby, is a local mountain range keeping the character confined or does it present a challenge to climb?
Weather—provides overall tone, how this factors into travel, affects the time spent indoors, mandates clothes character needs
Using just those two elements, consider what the character will see as she looks out the window musing over her latest problem—ocean waves, rugged mountains, desert flowers, grassy plains, the concrete and steel of skyscrapers. Humans look at their surroundings for centering, anchoring, and calming. Think of how different the character is who gazes at red rocky soil and prickly cactus from the one who watches water wash up on a sandy beach from the shade of a palm tree.
Then the questions start. What choices has that person made to live in that atmosphere? Did a job bring the person there? Did the person run there and hope to hide? Or was the person born there and has tried several times to leave but some type of ties keep him there—could be family or financial.
Now that you’ve determined where on the planet the character lives, you have to concentrate on the Residence. A shack, a sod house, a ranch house, an estate, a Victorian house, a subdivision house, a condominium, an apartment, a studio, a castle? Once that choice is made, you need to know what the character surrounds herself with. More questions arise about furniture types, color schemes, decorations, etc.
What Employment (or inheritance) allows the character to live there, or traps the character to that location? Does the character tend houseplants or have to be home sometime within a 24-hour period to feed a parakeet? Or cat? Or is her schedule so unpredictable she doesn’t have a pet—although she’d love one.
I’m a member of the Automobile Association of America and love using their tour books as my first step of research. Once I have a general idea of where in the US I want to set my story (west coast, east coast, southwest etc) I pick up a tour book for that region and start reading. Of course, the entries are written to entice individuals to come as a tourist, but the general information includes a timeline of historical events, topography, and temperature ranges. Within the descriptions of the locations are elevations [Aspen, CO is 7,907 ft] population [6,658] and often the event that founded the town [gold strike; previously named Ute City, Aspen made official in 1880 because of the numerous trees]. From the restaurant and motel/hotel section you can get a feel for the type of community, the seasonal festivals, and what kinds of businesses might be there. A town that supports a Motel 6 and a Best Western, Dennys and Jims will have a different population than one that has a listing including 15 motels (3 are 5 star establishments) and restaurants with names in foreign languages. Books about the individual states in the children’s section of your local library can also be used to get a sense of the overall geography, population and industry.
The mileage chart that shows the distance between large cities is helpful. Just make sure you are realistic in the travel time. Nothing worse than a story where the character drives from Los Angeles to Denver in six hours, when in reality the trip takes twice that time.
Before you start your next story, take a few moments (or hours, depending) to evaluate how the aspects of geography, weather, employment and residence will affect your character and ultimately, your plot.
About LindaAs a young girl, Linda was often found lying on her bed reading about fascinating characters having exciting adventures in places far away and in other time periods. In later years, she read and then started writing romances and achieved her first publication--a confession story. Married with 4 adult children and 2 granddaughters, Linda now writes heartwarming contemporary and historical stories with a touch of humor and a bit of sass from her home in the southern California mountains.
Setting was a huge factor in my latest release, Montana Sky: Laced By Love. My heroine Cinnia was part of a vaudeville troupe that arrives in a mining town with a population of 62. If her group hadn’t been traveling with their own sleeping accommodations inside their wagons, they wouldn’t have found a place to sleep. In fact, when my hero Nicolai arrived the previous month, he had to build his own shop with living quarters.