Don’t Slack on Setting

I picked up a book recently because it’s set in New Orleans. The plot sounded okay, but really, New Orleans. As someone who used to live in the American Lowcountry, I miss the South. As an Anne Rice fan, I feel I’ve visited New Orleans many times, even though I haven’t.

I was excited to start this book, escape the desert for a while, and be lulled into a sensuous stupor by the sights, sounds, and smells of what many consider the most beautiful city in the world.

To say I’ve been disappointed is an understatement. Here’s what I’ve gotten so far: “There was something about New Orleans—something about the air itself—a certain sultriness found nowhere else, that silky touch of humidity on skin like fingertips dragged slowly over your flesh.”

Great! And that was the first line. Since that first line, nothing, nadda. The author could be writing about Wall, South Dakota, and I wouldn’t know. Where is my French Quarter? Where is the overwhelming, sweet scent of magnolia? Where are the horse-drawn buggies for tourists?

ef5f114d06dfe0799832eb2df94d3424I’ll tell you where: in New Orleans. But not in this author’s book.

As a writer, setting is important. In my novels (even in my short stories), the city becomes a character. When I wrote Life without Harry, my readers rejoiced over places they recognized and couldn’t wait to visit places they did not. Same goes for Something about a Ghost, set in Phoenix. You know damn well you’re in Phoenix. You feel the dry heat and smell the spring-blooming orange blossoms. You see the purple-red sunsets, because Phoenix has a persona. Setting should have a persona.

As I mentioned, I was once lucky enough to live in the American Lowcountry. I lived in Charleston, South Carolina (aka “Heaven on Earth”), and the novel I’m writing at present takes place there. An excerpt:

“The air felt crisp, clean, light, and although most of the flowers were long dead, the air still smelled like some sweet bloomer over the usual scent of saltwater and wet sand. He clunked down the metal stairs that led to the ground floor and paused as his boat shoes met grass.

“He walked through the yard and its overabundance of dormant gardenia plants, their waxy leaves still green and lush despite the chill. The Crepe Myrtles at the end of his sidewalk were almost bare, beyond a few dark orange leaves that clung. He pulled a leaf free and held it between his fingers as he took a left and walked down Church Street toward Battery Park.

fbe2a39fb38fcb522ed53d63611ecbd2-3“He passed the houses where rich people lived, passed their well-kept gardens, their BMWs. He passed over brick roads, beneath the sprawling, wicked arms of Angel Oaks. He paused at Stoll’s Alley, a tiny walkway of brick, overwrought with climbing ivy—one of his usual short cuts—and kept moving until he entered Battery Park, the very tip of the Charleston peninsula.

“He stayed on the edge of the Battery. He stood on the walkway overlooking the harbor with his elbows leaned against the cold metal rail. The sky was cloudy, so the water looked dark green, tumultuous as though a storm would soon arrive. In the distance, he could see Fort Sumter and an American flag that flapped in the wind. There was a wind, a slight one that brushed softly over his face and brought with it the smell of dead fish.”

Do you smell the smells? See the sights? Feel the air? I hope so. I worked hard to take you to Charleston, even if you’ve never been there. This is setting, and for some reason, we’ve forgotten it. We’ve gotten so caught up in plot, character, conflict—but what is a story without a world, a sense of place?

This is a reminder to writers and readers alike: don’t let books get away with weak settings. Don’t be lulled by pretty people. People are but a thin pie slice of what is really happening in a story. Don’t disappoint me. I’ll find you and write about you on my blog.

14 thoughts on “Don’t Slack on Setting

  1. So true! I would never mention setting in a story if I didn’t include bits and pieces of my own experience in the town. I feel bad that you were disappointed, so I’ll leave you a post link to my vacation photos from New Orleans! Hope you don’t feel it’s spamming.

  2. I also find setting becoming a character. After all, where you come from and where you’re going shape the MC. Have you read Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the Easy? It’s brilliant. I think you’ll get your New Orleans fix too.

    We moved near Charleston two years ago. It’s a beautiful place to raise a family and I’m finding that anybody who’s spent any time here wants to come back.

  3. I have been to Charleston very often (I was there two months ago!), and reading your words took me back once more. I love books where the setting becomes a character, and I would be disappointed in the New Orleans book too, I’m sure. Can’t wait to read your lowcountry book! = )

  4. Setting is definitely vital. You’re right, though, I think writers often skimp on setting. I wrote about NYC, my hometown, recently in a project and really enjoyed the process of incorporating the setting into it. It showed me that I need to get to know my other settings well enough to write them the same way.

  5. I enjoyed your descriptive passage, the one you shared here.
    Because of my own weirdness, I always have to be urged by betas to add description. Thank you for reminding me. It’s also partly a problem of those of us who navigate between writing novels and picture books, where the descriptive button has to be turned off, and left to the illustrator.

  6. I so agree with you, Sara! I was reading someone’s pages and the lack of detail annoyed me. The premise of the story was interesting enough, but I couldn’t settle properly into his world. I need to work on my own attention to detail, too, though. Post. Thoroughly enjoyed.

  7. You know what, though, Sara? I just thought of something. I also read another piece of a WIP and I would say too much description can be a downfall, too. Too much description that wants us to see everything at once and ends up losing us. I am talking more about laying out a setting. The cliff…a train track ran northwest…etc, etc. If not done properly, layering a setting with description and showing the layout can just ruin things.

  8. Great post and so timely for me. Setting is my writing pitfall. I just had my first two scenes crit’d by a writing class and everyone said they couldn’t figure out where the scene was set and the time period. I really need to brush up on this.

  9. You are so right! I think the setting is the last thing that makes the whole story come together for me. Your story shouldn’t be able to be picked up and placed somewhere else without any changes. But still, I’m guilty of not giving enough details, especially if I know the place well and assume the reader might too.
    Thanks for a good reminder!

  10. Setting is definitely very important! Quite sad to see this particular author doesn’t use the setting for anything else than the opening line of the book.

    I love Anne Rice’s novels as well, particularly because of the setting. She has a great way of describing New Orleans, that made me feel like I was standing right there, next to her, looking at the streets and houses.

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