Oct 11, 2011

The elements of setting

Matanuska Peak and Lazy Mountain

My house is surrounded by two ranges - the Chugach and Talkeetnas. Mat Peak and Pioneer Peak are over 6,000 feet. You can hike them if you dare but there are no roads through either range. Each year, a dozen or so people die from reckless snowmachining - usually bc they caused an avalanche. And avalanche beacons don't work in 50-feet of packed snow.

My parents live in Nova Scotia on the other side of the continent.

Random Nova Scotia fishing village

Their 'mountain' is a 3,000-ft gradual slope in the middle of the province. I didn't notice it for years until my mother told me about this snowstorm that stranded about 50 motorists. Apparently cell service got knocked out and people waited for hours in their car for help that never came. Of course, it being a maritime province at all, the storm passed, the snow melted and nobody died. (Thankfully, you can't die from a hissy fit.)

Alaska: rugged, trackless terrain. 85 mph winter windstorms that last for days are common.
Nova Scotia: gentle, road woven coast-line. Windless, foggy winters are common.

So how does this setting affect people? In a very general way:

Alaskans (non-Native): ornery, independent, occasionally on the lam or half-crazed with stubborness, gun-toting individualists who are always on the move.
Nova Scotians: polite traditionalists, insular, law-abiding, family centered folks who live in the house their great-grandparents built.

While I started to write my last MS, I knew I had a lot of culture clash to work with. What I didn't know was how the conflict would develop my setting. Or how the setting would push my conflict. My MC is yanked out of her Alaskan lifestyle and into a new Nova Scotian family. On the surface, they're her blood relatives. But underneath, she couldn't be more different. One of my goals was to show how setting, where you live, the culture whose values you share, drives character.

Beyond knowing the basics of each culture (which is key before any of the rest of this will work) here are a few techniques I used:

Weather. My characters' moods were mirrored in the weather. If the scene was happy or romantic, the sun was shining or setting. For murder/mayhem - fog/wind/rain.

Speech patterns. Check idioms and regional phrases - do people say 'some' instead of 'very?' How would someone from Australia say, "That's really cool" ? Authenticity will deepen the appeal of your writing.

Architecture. What's the typical home look like in your location? What makes it unique - high roofline, arched windows, cedar siding, big porches? Is there a widely known building/location you could write a scene around?

Local customs. Do people kiss each cheek when greeting each other? Do they kick off their shoes before entering a stranger's house? Maybe there's a favorite bumpersticker a lot of people from one area have. (Where I live, it's "Alaska Girls Kick A&*" among others....) How could you work those customs into your writing?

Food. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, the same is true for a reader. Tell us everything about a meal - the scents, the flavors, the textures and colors - and we're right there with you. Everybody loves a good meal. Think: Under the Tuscan Sun. Mmmmmmm....if you can make it work with your plot, go for it.

Clothing. I hesitated to add this last bc seriously, nobody walks around naked even in fiction, but I think clothing is an important part of setting - especially if you write anything but contemporary. From Katniss to Scarlett O'Hara, what our characters wear says a lot about what's happening to them and when.

IMO, these are the writers whose worlds make mine fall away, whose setting wraps me up in a nice blanket of escape: LM Montgomery, Elizabeth George, Beverly Cleary, PD James, Rosalind Pilcher, Maeve Binchy...plus two Alaskan writers, Dana Stabenow and Heather Lende. (Heather is joining me Friday in honor of Alaska Book Week. *squeal!* Check out this link for more goodies showcasing authors from the Last Frontier.)

So who are your favorite atmospheric writers? And how do they do it? What are the elements of your setting? (And DO sign up for the Casting Call blogfest over at Carrie Butler's blog. It's going to be a blast!)


Cassie Mae said...

I got some freedom with this because one of my characters controls the weather, so whenever she was upset, the weather reflected it, happy...same thing. So I got to do it the other way around which was super fun!

And I did sign up for the Casting Call which I'm so excited for!!

installing vinyl siding said...

For giving different look to house in different climate cedar siding is the better option. Most of the house architecture in same location look same. With siding folks can give different look to the house than other home in different climate.

Sarah Pearson said...

This is something I really struggle with, if I'm not careful everything I write is set in 'Generic Town'. I want to visit the places where those photographs are taken :-)

Medeia Sharif said...

These are important things to think about when looking at setting and world building.

My work takes place in South Florida since I live there. If I were to choose a different setting, I'll keep your points in mind.

Mindy McGinnis said...

That's interesting - I do a lot of seasonal references in my writing. My characters are mostly Midwesterners like myself, and we get smacked in the face with all four seasons hard core. Moving through time with them demands that I change the scenery around them.

carrieannebrownian said...

My books are set in Atlantic City, Russia, and New York City. For one of my family sagas, Manhattan was almost like another character, because there were so many touches of New York, like characters going to real places and references to geography (which neighborhoods were where). My characters also frequently says "yous" and "yous guys."

Rain Laaman said...

Setting is one thing I feel an aversion to writing, but as soon as I get into the scene, it's easier.
I used to want the reader to know exactly what I'm seeing, but I realized that when I read books, I don't have to understand exactly what it looks like....

Carrie Butler said...

Great post, Melodie! You made some great points on setting. (I guess I can forgive you for making me cold with all of that snow talk! *grins*)

As for my settings, ditto what Mindy said. :)

Melodie Wright said...

Cassie - yay! I can't wait to see your creations on the blog hop.

Sarah - like everything else, creating a convincing setting takes practice. And you're welcome to visit me at either location! :)

Medeia - I also tend to keep my settings somewhere familiar. Makes things easier.

Mindy & Carrie- The midwest's seasons are the best part about living there, I think. (other than the awesome people, I mean.)

Carrie - I think a great setting is like another character!

Rain - nope, writers don't have to be super specific bc if done right, the reader will fill in the details.

E.R. King said...

You're very clever, Melodie. Where we live determines a lot about us, so why not our characters. Great post!