By Kimberly Brock
I think writers of any ilk can benefit from a healthy appreciation of setting, but regional – particularly southern writers – are haunted by our connection to, love of, loss of, and clawing crawling, desperate journey back to – the land.
Oh, I wish I was in Dixie…away, away. Every song is a lullaby of going home. We close our eyes and dream of the old house in the valley. We contemplate a city skyline, thinking only of the ancient ridges that surrounded freshly turned lowlands where we walked a row as a child. That old scene where Scarlet O’Hara’s father warns her that land is the only thing that matters? We took that old man seriously and so, when we write our stories, do our characters. Their whole world, how our characters view their circumstances, why they struggle, why they rejoice – it’s all reflected in the setting.
Pick up any piece of southern fiction and you will understand what Lee Smith meant when she said of regional literature, “There is an intimate identification with landscape. Setting is so important that it often defines the lives and possibilities of its characters…Place is the central defining factor of southern writing. There’s just simply more there, there.”
In writing THE RIVER WITCH, I knew Roslyn’s story would end up on the island – I knew she would go into a kind of exile. I imagined Roslyn’s need for a kind of isolation, and her need for great beauty, which led me to the Georgia Coast. I wanted it to be a place that would keep her off balance so she’d have to struggle to understand it and meet its demands. I needed a place that Roslyn believed was a complete departure. My character’s story is also the story of this environment and if you look at one, you will inevitably discover something about the other.
I’d written a good part of the first draft before Roslyn’s past and her childhood memories of Glenmary, Tennessee, began to surface. There, I found a people rooted for centuries in hard ground. Ancient mountains that would not be moved. Do you see these places? Then you see the people who inhabit them. I came to understand these were the characteristics at the core of Roslyn, this place defined all the ways she was at odds with herself, and as with everything else in the novel, these seemingly contradictory environments and cultures of Appalachia and Coastal Georgia would serve as mirrors for one another – just as the characters tend to hold up mirrors to one another. Some of this was written intentionally, but a great deal of it evolved with the story.
I’d always been fascinated by the idea that the Sea Islands shift and change, the idea of the alligators roaring season, the romance of the great live oaks, and then there was the element of superstition that lent itself to Roslyn’s haunting. The island was like going back to the mire from which we all emerge. I chose the island setting so she could fight her way back from her loss, physically and psychologically. That’s what Roslyn’s character ultimately faced – what each of us, ANY character ANY place, faces – a transformation that leads to resolution. She had to learn to shift and change to survive, just like the land beneath her feet. Her connection to place informs the reader of Roslyn’s internal journey through metaphor, but it also grounds the reader firmly in a compelling reality, one that every reader will envision for themselves. We are called to whatever away, away means home. To me, the true power of setting is that it gets to the heart of our human search for belonging.
Barbara Kingsolver said it best when she spoke of setting. “I have places from which I tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because we are animals…Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place.”
Ready to sing your own song of home and address setting in your stories? Maybe it doesn’t come naturally? Here are four brass-tack techniques I use in my own writing:
1. Reveal setting through action – Let your description unfold as a character moves through the scene. Consider which details your character would notice immediately, and which might register more slowly. Let your character encounter those details interactively. Use action verbs to set the scene. But be selective and careful not to bury the scene in detail.
2. Reveal setting through a character’s level of experience – What your character knows will directly influence what she sees. Different characters will perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the setting.
3. Reveal setting through the emotions of your character – What we perceive is profoundly influenced by what we feel. The same should be true for our characters. Filtering a setting through a character’s feelings can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”
4. Reveal setting through the senses –
- Visual – we make decisions and take action based on what we see.
- Emotions are affected by what we hear (music, the sound of a person’s voice, the whistle of a train, tone of voice).
- Smell evokes memories (baking, perfume, new-car leather, the odor of wet dog).
- Touch evokes a sensory response.
- As in real life, “taste” images should be used sparingly and appropriately.
What techniques work for you when writing setting? Are there examples of setting that became its own character in novels you love? What are your thoughts on a sense of place in fiction and its bearing on the journey to a resolution for a character? Share them here!
Kimberly Brock is the author of “The River Witch” and recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award 2013. Her short works can be found in the anthologies Summer in Mossy Creek, and Sweeter Than Tea. Formerly a special needs educator and actor, Kimberly is a regular contributor to several blogs dedicated to the craft of writing. She serves as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts through the She Reads Gives Back campaign. She is a certified Pilates instructor and owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates. She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, and is currently at work on her next novel.
This, like your writing, is beautiful, Kimberly, and a great reminder. Setting is such a great way to weave emotion into a scene.
I remember finally traveling to see Mount Rushmore, and being dissappointed. It looked just like all the postcards I’d ever seen of it. Cold, distant, flat. Being there in person didn’t make it much more real than the piece of paper the photo was printed on. I realized the difference was that I had no emotion about it – I couldn’t get close enough to have an emotional sense about it. I’ve found the places that I’ve seen that I can touch, smell, and get immersed in,are much more vivid – more real to me.
Will you hurry up with the next book? People, if you haven’t read The River Witch, you’re missing out on a wonderfully richly told emotional story.
Thank you, Kimberly, for blogging with this. This is such a perfect post! Setting is so important to the connection a reader makes with a story.
And I’m going to second Laura’s comment … hurry up with that next book! 😉
I’ll join the chorus: “We want your next book! We want your next book!” Great post, Kimberly, and you used setting so beautifully in The River Witch.
You guys are so gracious! I DO promise I am working hard on the next book. 😉
Laura, I felt the same way about Mt. Rushmore – slightly disappointed, disconnected. But I would like to know who DOES identify with Mt. R and why. THAT person absolutely interests me. THAT is the person I would write about and want to discover as a reader. What would that mountain reveal about a character? A lot, I bet.
Lovely to see you here, Kimberly!
There’s something about Southern writing that brings an environment to life, a lushness that leaves readers feeling as if they’ve been immersed in the book, instead of just skimming over the pages. As a reader, I adore the style. As a writer, I find that I write on the border. I’ve been told that since I’m from Florida (which below the Panhandle, is technically NOT the South) I shouldn’t let my writing be carried away by setting. Description of setting should be sparse. I disagree. In my one ms, the setting is almost its own character.
Thanks for the tips. And of course, I’ll echo what everyone else said about that next book 🙂
A wonderful piece, my friend–thank you so much for sharing these great tips which I know we can all use.
Setting can feel so elusive to me at times–sometimes I think knowing a place too well can almost be a hindrance as we forget to set the landscape for our readers when we take so much of it for granted as we write.
Ooooh, GOOD point. Being TOO familiar can mean you overlook the telling details that could really benefit your writing. I have to remember that! Maybe this is something to consider from your character’s POV – what they see and what they overlook, and how that effects the ways they interact with the setting. What they overlook is ABSOLUTELY telling.
Wonderful way of explaining why setting is important to the reader’s experience. Thanks for sharing.
As a fellow former actor I understand that connection to setting–how important it is to see a place in your mind’s eye, even if the backdrop was painted by a three-year-old and the furniture was last used in a Shakespeare drama, a sci-fi fantasy and a family comedy. Great post!
I think setting is definitely the staging for your story. Just as in any production, the stage introduces the reader to everything there is to know about the WHERE of the story, but it also tells them a lot of what they need to know about the WHY. It’s like one of those HIDDEN PICTURE PUZZLES we all did as kids.
Kimberly, I have always felt that the setting is one of the most important “characters” in the book. The setting, or from whence they come, is as vital to the plot as the nature of players in the scene. Thanks for a great post 🙂
I know that in the case of THE RIVER WITCH, I was asked once if I could have set it any other place. I actually said I could have (we lived in Seattle for several years and I was thinking of those islands), but I chewed on that question a long time after that because I realized I’d been wrong. The island on the Georgia Coast is a character in this novel. Any other island might have been substituted, but it would have changed everything else. The island defined the story and the characters. And, I should thank you for reading!
Thanks for this post on setting. I agree with “ramblings from the left” (above). I think of the setting as another character in the story. And in the South, we have so many colorful settings to choose from.
Great article, beautifully written. My book settings are deep in an Alabama bayou and my characters couldn’t be anywhere but there. I plan on reading The River Witch now!
I hear the best things about The River Witch. This post just lets me know I need to bump the book up my TBR pile. Thank you!!
Bump it up high on the TBR pile. 🙂
Thank you so much, Debbie and Jenny! It’s so kind of you and I’m delighted to be in your TBR piles. I really hope you enjoy the book. And if you do, leave a short review on Amazon. Helps tons!
Love the list, Kimberly—thank you! I can never get enough of tips, wanting to find the ones that work best for me. It’s an addiction! lol
And I, too, view setting as another “character” in the story. It’s SO important!
Thanks Kim, there are so many puzzle parts that make a book special and we can all use these tips to keep us in the groove.
Reblogged this on jbiggarblog.
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What a beautiful piece, and the writing has tinged me with a touch of word envy. 🙂 I will read anything you write, Miss Kim.
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Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
Setting can be tricky. This post makes it just a little easier. Enjoy!
Wonderful post, Kimberly! And per Orly’s instruction, I am bumping TRW way up on the TBR pile. 🙂
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