On too many occasions, I have read a novel and have been lost or have lost interest because I didn’t feel anchored in the story. Setting can be that anchor for an author. Now, don’t get me wrong–setting will never take the place of a great story or memorable characters, but it is the third leg on the stool that holds the story upright.
I have often thought that when writers plunge headlong into a story and fail to intertwine their settings, that the author isn’t fully realizing his or her story, and an unrealized story will never be excellent. As a reader, I loathe being lost in the narrative and left to try to figure out where the characters are and what’s going on around them. In many instances, that is the point at which I put down the novels.
Conversely, when I read a novel that so concretely fastens me to a story, I want to read on. I may not know what the characters are going to do or what is going to happen next, but I know where it is going to happen. My mind sees where they are. Under the guidance of a really good writer, setting can even become character. Most recently, I have seen that happen in the hands of Charles Frazier in Nightwoods, Thirteen Moons, and in Cold Mountain (Can you tell that I have a crush on him yet?). Even the titles of his novels are of time and place—the very definition of the word setting. Barbara Kingsolver plopped me down in the middle of a forest in the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, and Ann Rivers Siddons took me on a trip up the coast of Main in Off Season.
Setting is one of the reasons I love Southern literature—and the reason I love to write Southern stories. The aesthetics of the world around me inspire me to imbibe my manuscripts with details about time and place that provide deeper meaning, and then I tie that depth to what is going on in the story. For example, in GARDENIA PLANTATION, I used an ancient oak tree that overshadowed an old plantation house as a symbol of a matriarch that protected her family—complete with crooked, arthritic arms and gray moss, hanging like hair, but strong and sturdy enough to withstand years of Lowcountry storms and hurricanes. The minutiae of the place added strength to the story.
You see, setting shouldn’t be setting just because you need a place for things to happen. In general, if you can pick up a tale from one setting and just drop it into another, I would worry about that story. Setting should infuse the narrative with additional mood or atmosphere. Setting can also establish the tone in a good book.
Now that I’ve said so much about setting, let me tell you that you must also be cautious about using setting. Set your story using only essential details and broad strokes of your “pen” and never fill the space with long descriptions that end up sounding like a travel guide. Sprinkle your story with details, like you are salting your food—sparingly.
I hope I haven’t lost you yet by telling you how important setting is and then cautioning you to use little of it, but most importantly, I hope I never lose you in one of my stories by inappropriately using setting!