After graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a degree in public relations, Liz Johnson set out to work in the Christian publishing industry, which was her lifelong dream. In 2006, she got her wish when she accepted a publicity position at a major trade book publisher. While working as a publicist in the industry, she decided to pursue her other dream-being an author. Along the way, she wrote articles for magazines and worked as a freelance editorial consultant. Liz makes her home in Nashville, TN, where she enjoys exploring her new city, theater, and making frequent trips to Arizona to dote on her nephew and three nieces.
NJ: Liz is giving away a copy of Vanishing Act. Leave her a comment to get into the drawing.
Finding a Character in Your Setting
I’ve been writing stories for more than three-quarters of my life. I’ve been putting my ideas down on paper (or computers) since I was six. But I’ve only recently begun to understand the importance of setting, the time and location, within a novel. This is an area in which I’m certainly not an expert. But after a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, I’m beginning to see how settings can become real characters.
Of course, we all understand how setting can help shape a story. You can’t write an Old West book set in Boston. Six-shooter gun fights in the street don’t work as well on old cobblestones. And a book that takes place anywhere in America in 1864 is going to be affected in some way by the Civil War. And a narrative set in small-town America will almost always include a busy-body, who’s into everyone’s business. And what’s the point of placing characters in a seaside town if they never visit the beach or sail on the water?
The setting should always impact the story. But how does it become a character in and of itself?
Let me answer that by offering an example. In the story of Anne of Green Gables, a red-headed orphan with a huge personality, all other characters—while fantastic—pale in comparison to the heroine. Except, maybe, Prince Edward Island itself.
As I read the Anne books in college, I fell in love with the island. With the descriptions of red roads and beautiful flowers and the simple beauty of rolling countryside. The wind and the waves and the heart of The Gentle Island.
So when my mom and I made our first trip to the island this summer, it was like visiting a pen pal that I’d never met but knew through and through. Walking in the wind there was like getting a hug from a friend I didn’t even know I’d been missing. Dipping my toes in the ocean was like standing in the pages of a favorite book.
I didn’t really do any other reading about PEI except reading the Anne books, and that was enough to know the heart of the land that Lucy Maud Montgomery loved so much, that the island has called Anne’s Land.
Certainly Ms. Montgomery isn’t the only author to bring her setting to life. Many Southern fiction books bring the locale alive as well. But if it’s possible to make the setting of a book its own character, why doesn’t every author do that?
First, it’s hard. It’s very difficult to weave the time and place throughout a story without shoving it in the readers face. It takes a delicate hand and a strong storyteller to write it well.
Second, few books have a setting strong enough to be its own character. Take for example my second book, Vanishing Act. It’s set in the fictional town of Crescent City, Colorado, which is big enough to hold a junior college, but not so big that it would have a university. These are important factors for the story, but Crescent City isn’t the only town that the story could possibly take place in. Any number of small towns across America would suit just as well. Crescent City does its job well, but it’s neither unique nor does it bring its own spirit to the story.
So how do we maturing writers make settings into characters?
I’m not sure I have a complete answer for that. Like so many parts of writing, it takes a lot of practice.
As you’re practicing, might I suggest a few questions to ask yourself?
Could this story be told in another time or place with the same result? What spirit does the setting bring to the story? Does the setting bring hardships or success to the other characters? Are descriptions of the location as important as descriptions of the other characters? Is it as much of a friend as the people on the pages?
Let’s all keep practicing, and I think we’ll soon discover that we’re writing characters that never speak a word.
Eighteen months ago, Nora James watched as her father was shot in an alley-and then she fled. She changed her name, her appearance and her job, hoping to keep her father’s shooter at bay. For months, it worked…but now her luck has run out. A ruthless assassin is on her trail, and soon Nora, now known as Danielle, will be found. But this time, she has FBI agent Nate Andersen by her side-right? The handsome agent would give his life to protect Danielle, but he’s wary of giving his heart…until a deadly confrontation leaves him with both on the line.