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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

IS YOUR SETTING ANOTHER CHARACTER?

Location. Setting. Why is it so important to our story? It seems obvious in some cases. In others, there could be a 'hidden' agenda. It can actually become another character.

Let's take a look, first, at the importance of setting to our genre, or sub-genre.
Fifty years ago, the choices were limited. Regencies and Westerns were prevalent sub-genres in the historical category, and mysteries and detective stories captivated the 'contemporary' nook. Science fiction was still relatively uncharted.
The setting of a novel was a definitive device, separating the genres as clearly as any other element of writing.

The glittering ballrooms and colorful gowns and jewels whisked historical romance readers away to faraway, exotic locales. Sagebrush, cactus, and danger awaited heroes of the western genre, a male- dominated readership.

But something odd happened as time went by. The lines blurred. Rosemary Rogers combined the romance of exotic places with the danger of an action plot, and an unforgettable hero in Steve Morgan that, had a man picked up 'Sweet Savage Love' and read it, he certainly could have identified with.

By the same token, the male-oriented scenery accompanied by the stiff, stylized form of western writers such as Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage, The Last Trail) gave way to Louis L'Amour (Conagher, the Sackett series) and Jack Schaefer (Shane, Monte Walsh).

Why is the evolving change in description of location so important? In older writings, many times the location of a novel was just where the story happened to take place. Often, the plot of the story dictated the setting, rather than the two forming any kind of 'partnership.'

But with the stories that came along later, that partnership was strengthened, and in some cases, location became almost another character in the plot.
Take, for example, Louis L'Amour's 'Conagher.' As he describes the heroine's (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive. Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see. The underlying message is, "The land is what we make of it."

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence. She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she'd first laid eyes on.

The land is beautiful, but unforgiving. Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn't know what has happened to him. She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.

In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds. The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie. Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East. One of them says to Evie something to the effect of "I don't know how you can stand it here."

This is Evie's response to her:
"I love it here," she said suddenly. "I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it's in the wind.

"Oh, it is very hard!" she went on. "I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances. The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes. But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines. Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there"–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–"until I can see the other side…if there is another side."

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate. If that's not romance, I don't know what is.

Think of your own writing projects. What importance do you give setting in your description, plot, even characterization? Within 40 pages of 'Conagher', we understand that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie's character. She can't leave it, and it will never leave her.

18 comments:

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Cheryl,
What a beautiful post. Love your writing. :) When I read Louis L'Amour in high school one of the things that struck me was his attention to detail. He had that ability to really ground the reader in the setting. And in that respect, I think you are right. The setting should be treated as another character, fleshed out as the reader spends more time there. Loved Conager and Sam Elliot in the movie. I believe he and Katherine Ross are married in real life.

Tina Donahue said...

Great post, Cheryl. All of my settings have a great deal to do with my stories. I use them for atmosphere and because of their unique characteristics that are central to the storyline.

I like books that give a sense of place. You can almost smell the sweetness of the spring breeze, feel the chill of winter still in the air, etc. etc.

IMO, setting adds to the richness of a novel.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

What a beautifully written post, Cheryl. I loved the messages written on the tumbleweed and blown all over the plains until--as fate would have it, someone reads them.
Some settings have markers we all recognize right off like the mention of trenches almost automatically brings to mind WWI. It certainly helps set the tone in a story. Writers can use scenery to trick the reader--like a relaxed beach setting until someone is murdered.
Oh yes, I agree, settings are in themselves a character in the story.
Wonderful, thought provoking and informative post.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Kathy,
Thank you so much--I appreciate your kind words! I never read Louis L'Amour until much later on in life-- probably not until after my kids were born. Once I discovered him, I shared all my books with my dad who also loved him. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Kathy--his attention to detail is just phenomenal and he does it "quietly" without the descriptions reading as a travelogue.I loved Sam Elliott in Conagher, too, and I think you are right, that he and Katherine Ross are married. Man, talk about the luckiest woman alive. LOL Thanks for coming by today!

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Tina,
I agree with you 100%. In editing other people's stories, I usually find that is one of the main "problems" with new writers, especially--their characters seem to live in a vacuum.LOL Setting is so important, because it gives the "flavor" of the story throughout.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Sarah,
You know what amazes me is that some MAN thought of something so romantic as tying messages onto the tumbleweeds. LOL Another thing that really "got me" was the way L'Amour seemed to get inside Evie's head and see things through her womanly POV.Very interesting! I like the idea of certain settings being a kind of marker--hadn't thought of it that way, but you are so right. I'm so glad you came by today!

Carol Henry said...

Great post, Cheryl. I'm all about 'setting'. I love to 'see' where my characters are, not just a name of a location--it gives a good visual and enhances the story. I think that's why I incorporate so much of the exotic settings in my own novels. In fact, the setting is almost like another character as my hero and heroine have to deal with the elements along the way. It's one of the things readers find fascinating about them.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Oh Carol, I'm so glad you brought that up about the H/h having to deal with the elements. That's always such a great component of the story, isn't it, when "something" happens that they hadn't planned on weatherwise or something in nature goes awry. Love that. Thanks so much for coming by today!

Celia Yeary said...

An intriguing post, Cheryl--but I now expect nothing less from you. I remember readin Conager, and those notes...wasn't that made into a movie? I read that long, long before I every tried romance novels. In it, yes I see your point. She says the place is special, that "something is here," etc. Very nice...I enjoyed your explanation

Vonnie Davis said...

I'm nearing the end of a short story based on letters in tumbleweeds...yikes!!!...how can I compete with Louis L'Amour? I can't. I can only do it my way. Setting should give a sense of place. My husband wrote a book, "The Phantom Lady of Paris." He takes you to Paris on a magic carpet ride of words. I'm also writing a series set in Paris (we love it there, can you tell???) and other European. I struggle with not sounding like a travel agent. I'm not as magical with my words as Calvin. Great post.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Celia,
That remains one of my favorite books ever. Yet, it's so simple--that's the beauty of it, I suppose. With Louis L'Amour you can see the details without become awash in the verbosity. LOL Yes, it was made into a movie with Sam Elliott as Conagher and Katherine Ross as Evie. Of course. LOL
Thanks so much for coming by--I'm glad you enjoyed!
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hey Vonnie,
Good to see you today! Oh, really, how can ANYONE compete with LL? LOL He is the master. I know a lot of people put him down, but when you study his writing, it is really beautiful. No, you just have to do it your way! I didn't know your husband was a writer, too. That's wonderful. If I was a ninja my husband would know about as much about what I do as he does now. LOL Thanks so much for coming by, Vonnie!
Cheryl

Janice Seagraves said...

Great post and I agree with you.

While writing my first book I realized the island my couple are on is another character.

Janice~

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Janice,
You know, sometimes it kind of sneaks up on you and slaps you upside the head--HEY!!! My setting is really a character!!! I guess the setting for my book SWEET DANGER really became a character as I was writing it, because it was such a confined area, and I could picture everything in that deli. Even though it was the scene of a crime, I kind of hated to leave it behind. LOL Thanks so much for stopping in today!
Cheryl

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Cheryl,

I love the example you cited. What a lovely artifice, a woman tying her notes to tumbleweeds because she has no one to talk to. It puts me right in the place.

Setting is keenly important in my stories. I've been told by editors and agents alike that books they see where the story could have taken place anywhere aren't as intriguing to them.

Setting matters. Excellent post!

Cheryl Pierson said...

Maggie,
I had no trouble thinking of the example I wanted to use in this blog. LOL That is one of my favorite books, because all through it, the land changes in Evie's eyes, from something to be feared to something that is so beautiful she doesn't want to leave it. It develops her character in a way as the book progresses, seeing the way she comes to terms with living there, especially after her husband leaves and doesn't come back, and she's there with his 2 children trying to make a go of things. I'm so glad you were able to pop in today--I know you are busy! Thanks so much for your comments--I agree, your settings in your books are very important to your story.
Cheryl

Tim Smith said...

Cheryl, your post was excellent. I make the locations of all of my stories into supporting characters because the ones I choose are so rich it would be a shame to waste them. Whether it's the Florida Keys or the northern Ohio coastline, I seek out bits of personality in these places and feature them.

Tim Smith

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Tim,
I always try to do the same thing by somehow featuring my setting. Of course, writing westerns, the setting is always important in that it needs to be authentic and not be having people using medicine or weaponry that was not invented yet--I suppose that's true in all historicals. But more than that, I love to give the feeling of the heat of an Oklahoma summer day, the wind that comes "sweepin' down the plain" and everything that makes this part of the west special. Thanks so much for coming by today!
Cheryl