Saturday, April 25, 2009

Location, Location, Location…

By John Ramsey Miller

Eudora Welty once said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?..."

A great story and solid characters mean nothing if they are walking around in a territory unknown to a reader. Successful authors know that setting is as important to a story as any of the characters. We have the characters, their conflicts and dilemmas, and all else is setting. Setting adds texture and our readers should feel as though they are right there with our characters. What are the characters seeing? What are they smelling? How does their environment feel? What are the characters hearing? Is the sun shining? Is it hot or cold, wet or muggy? Is the sun out, the light failing, or is it as dark out as six inches up a bull’s butt? Are the tall weeds these characters are running through infested with chiggers or poison ivy?

In James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels his bait shop is so real you can almost hear the air pump and smell the minnow tank. You can feel the thick heat in the Louisiana air and see the ceiling fan as it stirs it. When he is sitting in a bar, you can smell the bourbon and see the condensation on the glass in front of old Dave.

Settings influence action. Nothing gets a reader’s blood flowing like a chase in a place where there’s no chance of outside interference. When the pursuer knows the territory and the victim doesn’t it adds suspense.

Writers should know enough about a place to describe it accurately, even if it’s made up from whole cloth. A made-up location should be taken from a real one the writer knows intimately and can convey. If you can see it, and you had better have it in your mind so it is real to you, you have to make your reader see it as well. You should take the time to describe the book’s settings in enough detail for the readers to have a clear idea of where the characters are and what is going on. Many authors, depending on style, leave a lot of details up to the reader's imagination, while others define the setting so there is no guessing or imagining.

Your settings should be of interest to the readers. I have set books in cities and in swamps and in each I bring the setting in so the reader will see how the setting affects the characters and the plot. I think of locations as characters, and the feel of them as texture. In the way the choice of a hat can say more about a character than two paragraphs of description, something a character says or feels about the environment can set a scene adequately in very few words.

I stick to locations I am familiar enough with to make them seem real. I do occasionally set a chapter in a place I’ve never been, like a jungle in South America, or most recently Route Irish in Baghdad, but those are isolated instances where I need an action to take place that impacts my story. A jungle is easy since I lived in Miami. Iraq was also easy since I’ve all seen it on my TV screen over and over for the past few years. That is okay for the way the place looks, but not good enough. Since my son was in Iraq with the Marine Corps, I talked to him to get his impressions––about how the country felt and smelled to him, especially at night when my scene took place.

The best writers place us right next to the characters. There are authors who can do a great job with the other elements necessary to a successful work of fiction, but fail to bring in the setting to their advantage. In order for a story to involve a reader effectively and to satisfy them, setting has to become one of the major characters.

Who among your favorite authors uses setting most effectively?


  1. John, this is a nice continuation of our ongoing discussion on the elements of writing. It’s a fine line we all walk trying to balance the right amount of setting description. I think it always boils down to individual style. Some writers make their mark by creating a thick atmosphere that plants the reader in the middle of the scene while others stay lean and still keep the story rich and memorable. Like just the right amount of seasoning in our favorite dish, we can enhance the flavor of any tale with a perfect balance of details.

    As for my favorite author, when it comes to placing me right in the middle of the setting with all senses at full throttle, it would have to be the amazing Terry Brooks.

  2. I'm inspired by Stephen King's The Shining. In that story, the Overlook Hotel became like a character itself, as much as a setting.

  3. oh goodness, that is a toughie. I love Elizabeth Berg's descriptions of setting a WHOLE lot. But Jodi Thomas is fab too. Thanks for such a great post!

  4. When a scene well painted it truly feels like a vacation in my living room. I've experienced that with several writers, but the one's that impress me the most are those who do it with historical fiction. For instance Bernard Cornwells "The Winter King" which told an Arthurian legend without any feeling of fantasy, it was incredibly realistic. I also recently finished Ken Follett's "World Without End" and found the setting to be incredibly detailed, even though it took place nearly 900 years ago. Whatever he did that managed to get so many details about the look and feel of Kingsbridge that long ago is what I want to do with my own work.

    Therefore I am actively working on a time machine to transport me to the Mongolian Empire circa 1150's. I thought I had it the other day, but upon the first live test...well things didn't go as well as I hoped.

    ...poor Fifi.