Claire McEwen, hopeful romantic.

Making the Most of Your Setting

Note: This post originally appeared on Writers and Authors.

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Setting is one of the most useful tools we have as writers, and yet in romance novels it is often underused. I suspect it’s because so many books and articles about writing warn us against long descriptions of the setting. Perhaps novelists sometimes overreact, and veer away from writing about setting at all.

When I read a novel that doesn’t say much about the setting, I feel kind of lost. I want vivid pictures in my head when I read, and it’s a bit hard to conjure them up when the characters are wandering around in some barely-mentioned location.

If we’re careful about how we use setting, we can transport our readers to the world inside our stories without slowing the pacing down. Here are a few tips to do just that:

Think about how your characters see the setting, and describe it through their eyes.
How characters respond to a setting can tell the reader a lot about them. In my new book, Convincing the Rancher, the heroine, Tess, is completely uncomfortable in the mountains and doesn’t want to be there. So when I described the setting, it was negative, at least for the first few chapters of the book.
The high desert air nipped her skin with icy teeth.
Tess glanced back out the window, at the vast mountains filling the horizon, and the enormous empty sky graying in the dusk. She shivered.
These jagged hills… looked like teeth, Tess decided. Teeth from some strange monster with bad oral hygiene.

But later on, as Tess starts to appreciate the wilderness, her reaction to it mirrors these changes.
The skeletal hills were lit golden in the afternoon light, their cracks and crevices in deep contrasting shadows. That was kind of pretty. Rocks jutted through the thin soil like abstract sculptures, and she liked modern art.

Use descriptive sentences, but keep them short and within the character’s POV.
Large blocks of description will slow the pacing. Revise descriptions down to their most interesting parts and have the character think about them during conversations, or quickly, within a larger scene.
When the hero, Slaid, asks Tess what she thinks of the landscape:
Across the valley were hills, dry, stark and tumbling on, one after another. They were so barren that she could see every detail of the land’s contours. It was like being able to look through someone’s skin and see their bones.

Replace dialogue tags with description.
Dialogue is a very effective way to deliver description. It will transport the reader further into the scene and can be much more interesting than “she said,” or “he asked.”
“It’s beautiful.” Beautiful in a rugged, formidable way that made Tess want to jump in her car and race home.
She took a long, deliberate look at the crowd growing around the stage. “I guess well just have to see.”
“I’ve been here once.” She could swear the peaks of the Sierra Nevada were glaring at her.


Use setting as a way to inspire character self-discovery.

Being in a new setting can have a powerful effect on our thinking, bringing back memories or inspiring insight. Take advantage of this in your stories.
When Tess and Slaid go riding together, she asks if they’re on grazing land.
“Nope… These are the native plants. Tough as nails.”
Tess looked at the shrubs with new respect. They were tough, and prickly looking too. She could appreciate any creature that survived under tough conditions. Like she had. Ugh. Benson must have introspection in the air. She found herself constantly thinking about parts of her life that she had no interest in revisiting.

When Slaid takes Tess to the ghost town of Bodie, the setting is a catalyst for her.
Tess sat where she could see the town, so still under the bright midday sun. The dry heat felt good beating all around her, baking her muscles just enough to relax them. The hissing wind, the dull thumping of Slaid opening and closing the truck doors all lulled her, making her a little sleepy.
She studied the abandoned buildings, still littered with the remnants of long-ago lives. People had been born and lived and loved and died here, and now there was nothing but the wind whispering through the buildings. This place was a reminder that time passed quickly; lives were lived in the blink of an eye. Tess suddenly felt a sense of urgency – that she needed to be braver, more alive than she had ever been.

Setting can bring so much depth to a story. My hope is that this post gives you ideas for how to incorporate more of it into your book, without slowing the pacing down. If you have any other ideas for how to enrich stories with setting, please share them in the comments.

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