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.