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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Make Your Setting a Character ~ by Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is the author of 13 novels, including The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the Best Books of 2008. When she is not working on a new novel, she is directing the small groups ministries at The Church at Rancho Bernardo. She also enjoys teaching workshops on writing, spending time with her family, music, reading great books, and traveling. She lives in southern California with her pastor husband and their four grown children. Visit Susan at her website

Susan is giving away 3 copies of her book, A Sound Among the Trees. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing. U.S. residents only, please.

Make Your Setting a Character 

Close your eyes and picture in your mind a place where you would like to be right at this moment. See it, feel it, breathe it. What makes that place special to you? How does it make you feel? What do you taste and touch and smell at that place? If that place had a voice, what would it say to you?

Chances are you didn’t have to break a sweat coming up with a place to mentally head to. We are wired to assign value to places. That’s why home is so sweet, Yosemite is so beautiful, Paris is so romantic and a moonlit beach is so calming. It’s also why dark houses scare us, crumbling cliffs intimidate us, and foggy moors depress us. Places communicate something to us. A spider doesn’t care if it makes a web in a dark, musty cellar or under a chair in an opulent ballroom. But we care!

The fondness or apprehension or dread you feel toward different places is actually something you can shop from as you write your novel. Because the more you make your setting a character, the more you can use your setting to influence your character’s quest as either her ally, an observer, or her adversary. 

In A Sound Among the Trees, which hit bookstore shelves just last week, I wanted the antebellum house that appears in both the contemporary and historical parts of the book to come across as almost a living thing, with desires and regrets and loyalties. I knew if I could do that, the story would have an extra layer of depth and I would have a built-in mechanism for increasing the tension.  Holly Oak, the house on the front cover of the book, was more than just a setting; it was an apparatus to display my characters’ flaws and strengths.

So what’s the best way to make endow your setting with character traits? Here are some steps to follow:

1.  Envision the world your characters live in. Know the environment that will be the backdrop for everything that happens. The setting you choose should matter. It should make a difference to the outcome. It should communicate something. Note that there is one major setting and dozens of supplementary ones. You want to be intimately familiar with all of them.

2.  Do your research upfront. Familiarize yourself know the weather, the lingo, the hot spots, the scary streets, how the sky looks at sunset and how far you can see on a clear day. Knowing the setting ahead of time frees you to concentrate on plucking out of it plot-driving details. Read that city’s newspaper online, check out the real estate ads, the society pages, the obituaries, and the restaurant guide. Look at satellite photos on Google Earth, noting its streets, its topography, its airport and shopping malls
And please remind yourself that there is much more to the physical setting than the weather. We love to use the weather (it was a dark and stormy night) to set our stages but there are so many other very vivid scene-setters at your disposal. Make use of all your senses. Every scene should include a setting that is dimensional and purposeful.

3. Make note cards about your setting when you’re in pre-write mode so that when you begin to actually write and the creative engine is cruising along, you don’t have to stop to study the place where your characters find themselves in. Mine from your setting’s details the aspects that will touch the reader at the sensory level. Concentrate on the five senses, and be mindful of the ones that aren’t as obvious. There is more to a setting than what you can see.

4. Could your story take place anywhere else? What is unique about the time and place you have chosen? Make a list.

5. Interview your setting! It made sound weird, but give it a try and see what happens. Pretend your setting is sitting across from you. Ask it these questions: Are you ambivalent, malevolent, or benevolent toward my character(s) and the quest? Why? What has made you the way you are? What would you say to my character if you had a voice?

I have a special exercise for you to help hone your setting skills! Watch You’ve Got Mail this week or weekend. Make a list of every time you sense the setting as character. When the movie is over “interview” Kathleen’s West Side. Is it ambivalent, malevolent, or benevolent toward her and her quest? How are the seasons used to help tell the story? What sensory details enhance the setting other than simple geography?  Let me know how this exercise helps you…

See you out in the wonderful world…

A Sound Among the Trees

A house shrouded in time.

A line of women with a heritage of loss.

As a young bride, Susannah Page was rumored to be a Civil War spy for the North, a traitor to her Virginian roots. Her great-granddaughter Adelaide, the current matriarch of Holly Oak, doesn’t believe that Susannah’s ghost haunts the antebellum mansion looking for a pardon, but rather the house itself bears a grudge toward its tragic past.

When Marielle Bishop marries into the family and is transplanted from the arid west to her husband’s home, it isn’t long before she is led to believe that the house she just settled into brings misfortune to the women who live there.

With Adelaide’s richly peppered superstitions and deep family roots at stake, Marielle must sort out the truth about Susannah Page and Holly Oak— and make peace with the sacrifices she has made for love.     


  1. Great Blog, thanks for the insight into characterization, I never thought of the setting in the movie, You Got Mail as a character, but now I see it clearly. It really was, when Tom Hanks said "It would be a shame to miss the city in the spring time."
    All throughout the story NYC is another character, it is so vital to the stories existence.

  2. Thanks for the great tips, Susan. I look forward to reading, A Sound Among the Trees. What a great exercise and You've Got Mail has always been one of my favorite movies!

  3. Great info, Susan. I love the part of the spider not caring where he lives, but we do! Thanks for all the great advice!

  4. I love anything Susan writes! Can't wait to read this one. Pick me, please! :-)

  5. These are such great pointers on setting and characterization! Thanks so much for sharing them! I look forward to applying them to my current WIP.
    And "You've Got Mail" is such a fantastic movie. I think the Shop Around the Corner plays an integral part in the movie, as well as the city. It's the twirling place, Kathleen's childhood, an extension of who she is, and it's a place of warmth and family friendliness in the midst of a big, bustling city. A place to slow down. That's why it's as devastating to the viewer as it is to Kathleen when it shuts down.

  6. That's something I've been working on, Susan, so I appreciate your comments. I've also learned that without the particular setting you've chosen, the characters wouldn't be the same. It's left its stamp on them and helped form who they are. Thanks for docking with us for a bit!

  7. The only book that stands out in my mind as the setting also being a character, is the sea in Eyes of the Amaryllis, by Natalie Babbit. The grandmother combs the tide with her granddaughter every high tide, looking for some sign from the sea that her husband is coming home. And one day, the face of the sunken ship's figurehead washes ashore, and the grandmother claims it as her sign. But the sea wants it back. It's a wonderful, almost ghost story, and the sea is an impressive, frightening antagonist without ever becoming anthropomorphic.

    I'd read A Sound Among the Trees just for the novelty of it. I used to live in a house I swear was just like that--full of misfortune.

  8. Thanks Susan. Just what I'm working on also.

    My K9 Spy heads to Paris in the second book (in progress) and teams up with a feral cat who lives in a cemetery. So I'm immersed in Paris cemeteries... not so romantic but... then again...

    Would enjoy reading your new book, especially since we have a suspected SPY in the mix! Very interesting cover too! may at maythek9spy dot com

  9. "The setting you choose should matter. It should make a difference to the outcome. It should communicate something."

    I will remember this. There are authors who do a great job of this, like Sandra Bricker, Tamara Leigh, Missy Tippens and the authors of the Love Finds You series. Also authors Beverly Jenkins and Mary Kay Andrews.

    I love how you marry historical and contemporary to tell a tale. A Sound Among The Trees sounds like an interesting read.

  10. What an insightful post. This information is going to be so helpful to a newbie fiction writer (me). Thanks. Hope to win one of your books so I can see how you pull this off.

  11. You've inspired me to take a closer look at setting in my WIP. I like the idea of note cards, but how that's just been translated through my brain is to make a setting note card for each chapter. On each card note the setting of each scene and see how it relates to the emotion and arc of the scene. Can some detail from the setting better reflect that arc, or the plot, or the character's inner journey at that point?

    I'm looking forward to reading A Sound Among the Trees.

  12. Perfect timing for me, Susan, as I'm going over a finished draft of "My Father's House" to deepen, edit and polish. I love the idea of setting as a character. My story has a setting with meaning, both the house (symbolizes the heroine's heart and her isolation and later surrender) and the geographical setting: the remote Oregon Outback, a place of vast emptiness and solitude, yet a place of deep peace and rest if you choose to use it that way. My character 'relates' to the emptiness at first, it's what reinforces her chosen life, then later, the stillness and peace when her need for isolation changes. I have tried to convey that but am sure I can use your tips to bring both the geographical setting and the building more to the surface as a vibrant character. Thank you so much for sharing! Can't wait to read your book. (I just downloaded the new 2.99 e-version Blue Heart Blessed, one of my favorites!)

  13. A wonderful article. It made me think. I don't like a lot of description but setting is important to me. I hope you don't mind. I cut and pasted this article. And I have to read the book.

  14. You are so right about how the setting can be a character and it adds such depth to a story. I am looking forward to reading the Rachel Flynn books since I live outside the Twin Cities.

  15. I loved "The Shape of Mercy," Susan, and am looking forward to reading your new book.
    Some settings that have been tremendous characters for me as a reader include the town of Mitford in Jan Karon's Mitford series, and Avonlea in Lucy Maud Montgomery's series of Anne of Green Gables books. The Shop Around the Corner is a beautiful character in "You've Got Mail" and is, in many ways, my favorite part of the story--especially story time in the bookstore, the moment the owner is placing Christmas ornaments on her tree in the shop window, and the wonderful "twirling scene"--precious memories of her mother. When the m.c. closed the door of her shop for the last time and exited down the street with her over-the-shop bell ringing a little as she walked, it was like the tolling of funeral bells for me--very sad, but a wonderful, wonderful movie! Thank you for your post and helpful insights!

  16. Susan, I appreciate your willingness to share your insight as your learning from hard work and perseverance to the art of writing. I am learning these ways as I type each day bit by bit. I enjoy your writing style as I have read some of your books. I would enjoy reading this series too. God bless.

  17. Susan, I love your books...have read most all of them. I placed them all in church library, and they are very popular there! Would love to win this is definitely on my wish list! Thanks.

  18. When I went back to my NaNoWriMo08, I realized I had almost no description whatsoever. No character description, no setting description. It apparently all happened in a room with blank white walls. Thanks for the ideas to color my storyworld.

  19. I LOVE the idea of making setting a character. I read this post early this morning and have been daydreaming all day about how I can apply this technique to my creative nonfiction--and realizing that, in some cases, I've already done it.

    You picked one of my favorite movies, too. Wonder if I can convince my family I must watch it (again) as a work assignment?

    Thanks for giving us this glimpse into the writing mind of one of the most gifted authors I know.

  20. I find that if the setting is not a character in a novel I'm reading, I tend to lose interest. Now, unfortunately, that doesn't translate into my own writing. Still working on making that happen, though ...

    The Shape of Mercy remains my favorite Susan Meissner book. Which is sort of like saying Dove dark chocolate is my favorite chocolate--as if I've ever met a chocolate I didn't like.

  21. enjoyed this posting very, very much....thanks for the chance to read susan's latest novel :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  22. Great post. Can you elaborate a bit more on the note card tip?

  23. Thanks for all your great comments! I apologize for being out of cyberspace the last couple days - was on a writing retreat with NO internet! Penny, my note cards are rather random and that's why I use cards, because as I write and realize what I need and what I don't, I can toss the cards that aren't going to figure in to the story. When I make notes on a place, like its weather patterns for instance, if I realize there is no scene at all that will occur in the winter months, I can toss those cards I made solely about my setting in its winter life. Sometimes the card is so random, it doesn't really fit a category like the weather or cool local landmarks or historic events that happened there, so its a card that just stands alone as a cool random fact about the setting I've chosen. Sometimes I can use all of them, but not always. The ones I use I keep to double check my facts at editing time. Hope that helps!
    Thanks again for all the comments and insights!


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