I’ve recently realized the importance of my own physical setting as an influence in my writing. When I’m working on a story, I like to write at my desk while drinking a particular type of green tea out of a specific mug. But sometimes I make myself go out and write in a coffee shop or bookstore, if only to remember why I like writing at home (and to reassure myself I am not a completely neurotic and rigid person.) I’m actually writing this blog post from Austin, which is a city I adore. I went to college here, one of my kids was born here, and every time I visit, I’m reminded how a city has a certain vibe and feeling. When I’m in Austin, I can feel the energy here influencing my work, and it goes beyond the fact that many of my stories take place in Austin; it’s more the idea of tapping into a different frame of mind depending on where you are. The weather and traffic and landscape of where you’re living will surely show up in a small way in your own work. How is your mood and perspective influenced by living in the suburbs vs. living in the heart of a city? Living in a populated area like California versus living somewhere more remote like Alaska?
Setting used to be one of my least favorite aspects of a story, both as a writer and a reader. As a character-driven writer, I typically think of characters first, then plot, and finally setting. And when it comes to setting, I’m perfectly happy naming the city the characters live in, describing a few of the city’s quirks, and calling it a day. In other words, it can be tempting to ignore setting completely.
There was a time in the not so distant past when I thought that setting was the part of the story that could be neatly excised. Of course I knew there was a difference between a character living on a farmhouse in Kentucky as opposed to a high rise in New York, and of course your characters can’t have an expensive Starbucks habit if they live in the Amazonian rainforest nor can your character spend hours a day tending a garden if he lives in the desert.
But it seemed to me that setting was influential in subtle ways, like how your characters might talk, where they can physically move around in a story, etc.
A few years ago I was working on a short story about a man who runs into his ex-fiancee at the grocery store. I had been struggling with the scene that follows their chance encounter and after staring blankly at my computer screen for awhile, I decided to take my dog for a walk. It was a windy day and as we walked, I watched a trash bag snag in a tree and I noticed how my poor dog was struggling to walk a straight line. A cyclist passed us, and I suddenly imagined my character bike riding over to his ex’s house on a day like this. I could see that he would be going over there to apologize and only later did I see that the setting was a mirror for his own swirl of emotions. It was the setting that helped me find the emotional weight to the scene.
In Nina Munteanu’s on-line article Important Tools of Setting in a Novel: Create Memorable Settings Using Time, Place and Circumstances, she argues that without setting “there is no story.” At first glance this is a bold statement. What about plot? Character? Theme? And yet, Munteanu makes the case that setting is influential because it grounds a scene, advances the plot, and reflects a character’s mood. The setting of your story keeps the characters from simply being a group of talking heads amid a backdrop of nothing. Munteanu writes, “Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care.”
But setting is important, even for us character-driven writers. Maybe I should say, especially for us character-driven writers. I like writing dialogue; it’s one of my strengths. The downside to knowing our strengths as writers is that we can lean too heavily on them. This means I often have scenes in my stories with people just sitting around talking. Remember what we said about not wanting your characters to be talking heads in a vacuum? That’s where setting comes in.
So if you’ve been hesitant to give setting a big role in your work (setting-phobic—that’s a word, right?) don’t panic. There’s a way to incorporate setting into your work without compromising your own aesthetic. And just because I have a better appreciation for setting now doesn’t mean that I’m a convert who now knows fifty ways to describe a busy Austin street. But it’s helped me to appreciate why that street sometimes needs a description.