Monday, December 20, 2010

Setting as Character

In a horror story, setting is the unnamed character. The spooky house that you know she should not enter. The door he shouldn’t open. Movies show you what that setting is like replete with drippy candles and wax puddles and wind blowing the lace curtain. In novels, we have to create those pictures with our words. (That helps the director of my books see my vision so the movie will turn out exactly the same way I imagined it—NOT!)

I don’t write horror, but I do write mystery. And sometimes setting is the unnamed character there because these events couldn’t happen if the story were not set where it is. The walk-in refrigerator freezer plays a role in my WiP novel as does the setting of a culinary arts school. What I have planned requires those two (and other) settings.

But, that is not my strength, describing where my characters are. I am in awe of my critique partners who make me feel I am there in their books. I can smell the creosote after a desert rainstorm. I see the gleam of the cherry wood cabinets. I feel the fabric wales on the blanket. They do that so well.

Not I.

“I’d like to know more about the kitchen in this house. Is it messy? Upscale? Is it a show kitchen or one the owner uses?” asks Annie at our last critique meeting.

“I don’t know where we are,” says Sandy in reference to a page or paragraph opening sentence.

How easy to say, “Oh, I’ll put that stuff in when I revise.” Why do I not put it in as naturally as I do plot points? Why do I rarely call them out on setting descriptions. I am the most likely violator in our group.

Because setting is really important in mystery, sometimes providing clues to help solve the puzzle, it is necessary that I get better at thinking setting. I do believe that awareness, what’s around me at all times, is what is at root of this.

You’ve played the game, I’m sure, where you are asked to close your eyes and describe the room you are in. I do not do well with this game. I am better at the memory one, you know, the tray of stuff you study and then remember after it is removed. I focus. I pay attention when I am told to do so.

Left to my own devices, apparently I don’t focus or attend to surroundings enough. I believe that is why, when writing, I don’t focus or attend to surroundings. I don’t do it in real life, so why would anyone think I could do it in fictional life?

But, can I change? What if I consciously focus on setting at the beginning of every scene? What if I don’t let myself write plot or dialogue until I can picture where the characters are and do a word picture of that scene’s setting?

Hallie Ephron’s book (Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, reviewed in an earlier blog) has a worksheet for doing that. But I am talking about more. Writing a page or more on the setting for a scene would be work, most of which would never show up in the book. But, it would for sure help me know where my characters are right down to the gnat’s derrière.

Worth a try, eh? Or, I could just let my critique partners find the holes that I can patch later.

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