What setting means to me:
As a young girl, I was known for becoming so engrossed in whatever book I happened to be reading that I became completely oblivious to everything happening around me. My siblings accused me of forgetfulness, neglecting my chores, but that wasn’t true. Instead, I had simply traveled to the setting of the story and become an active participant. I saw what the characters saw, smelled what they inhaled, tasted what they ate, and felt what they felt.
For example, during one of the earlier chapters in The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy prepares for the journey to the Emerald City, she realizes she’s hungry. She picks succulent fruit from a tree and eats it, along with a slice of buttered bread, washing it all down with a drink of water from a clear, sparkling brook.
That passage never failed to make me hungry. I’d put the book down and head for the kitchen, hoping against hope we had some sort of succulent fruit I could enjoy. More often than not, I had to settle for a box of raisins, taxing my imagination to the extreme in order to enjoy their “succulence.”
Similarly, when reading Where the Red Fern Grows, one of my all-time favorites, I could feel the damp earth under my bare feet, see the ’coon in the trees, and hear Old Dan and Little Ann baying as they hunted. More importantly, I understood through Rawls’ description of the setting that conditions were often harsh and unforgiving. Set in the 1930s, in the worst years of the Great Depression, Rawls describes the devastating poverty of the region. People were hungry, ill clothed, and desperate. I remember being terribly disappointed when I finally looked up from the story, tears streaming down my face, and saw the same old flat, west Tennessee landscape to which I’d been tethered when I began the book.
Set against this backdrop, Billy Coleman’s relationship with his beloved coon hounds is even more poignant. He remembers his favorite times as running “wild and free” in the nighttime with his dogs, on the trail of a coon. He describes “…running like a deer through the thick timber of the bottoms, tearing my way through stands of wild cane, climbing over drifts, and jumping logs, running, and screaming, and yelling, “Who-e-e-e….” Through the vivid description of Billy’s run through the woods, the crashing, tearing, and jumping he must do along the overgrown mountain trails, the reader can feel Billy’s euphoria at the small measure of freedom he finds on the trail with his dogs.
That, I think, is the key to developing the setting of a story. If the writer can influence the reader to share the sensory experiences of a character, the setting works. I tasted what Dorothy tasted, felt the wind on my face along with Billy Coleman, felt the adrenalin rush of chase along with Old Dan and Little Ann. Little House on the Prairie had me inhaling the scent of prairie grasses alongside Laura Ingalls, Old Yeller had me cringing from a bear, and the Encyclopedia Brown series had me spending countless afternoons searching for clues (the mystery to be solved, however, was never quite clear).
Setting, however, is about more than just sensory experiences. My book club recently finished reading Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. Plainsong is, in short, a story about people in a small Colorado town connecting in a myriad of ways. One of the questions we discussed was, “How did Haruf’s description of the setting contribute to the story?” The consensus we reached was that the description of the setting was a direct reflection of the loneliness of the characters. The landscape was barren, the dead grass crunched underfoot, the temperatures were frigid, the wind was piercing. Haruf’s descriptions leave the reader with impressions of isolation, loneliness and despair, all of which contributed to the mood of the story.
That, I think, is the key to developing a great setting. As a reader, I love losing myself in a story, and a well-developed setting is paramount to that experience. This is done not only by bringing to life the sensory experiences of the characters through external descriptions, but also by shaping the setting in such a way as to determine the mood of the story. Imagine Rowling’s Harry Potter series set on a bright and cheery campus, or Stoker’s Dracula set in the U.S. The stories would be completely different stories, because setting is such a big determinant of mood.
In my own writing, though I’d never dare to compare myself with Johanna Spyri, Wilson Rawls, or other favorites, I try to insert myself into my characters. What would they see? Hear? Taste? Feel? What would it smell like to traverse down the side of a mountain at the break of dawn? What flowers would be blooming? What wildlife could be heard? Would she feel the dampness of the air on her face? What might she be feeling as she descends?
I will be forever grateful to the authors of my past, those incredibly talented writers who transported me away from the cow pastures of my youth and into places as diverse as Emerald City and Independence, Kansas, for the travels they allowed me to take. I only hope, as I develop as a writer, I may someday come close to offering the same.
Melinda is the author of the books Appalachian Justice, Return to Crutcher Mountain and Entangled Thorns. She is giving away one eBook copy of her first novel, Appalachian Justice and one eBook copy of her new novel Entangled Thorns. Click on the links to read the reviews of each book. Both winners will be chosen by Randomizer from among all people leaving a comment on this post this week. The first winner chosen will receive Entangled Thorns and the second winner will receive Appalachian Justice.