Saturday, March 14, 2015

Create the Flavor

by Sylvia Dickey Smith

My favorite part of writing a novel is creating a sense of place. If I do so effectively I take the reader into the story, making them a part of it, rather than a mere bystander. Setting must strengthen my characters and my plot, not be the main focus. Setting is more like mood music. It leads readers into the story and fits the mood I want to create. It does not overwhelm. I start with setting when I develop a new novel. For me, I need to know the setting of the story first, for where is what drives my characters and my plot. Whichever way you do it, the critical ingredient is to feel passionate about your setting.

Setting is more than where your characters live. It is a way of life. Certain places and eras evoke certain expectations and stereotypes. Use these to get a good grasp of your characters, the cadence of their speech, the food they eat, how they dress, what they do in their spare time, their religion, their occupation, what your character and setting smell like.

You can use setting to advance your plot. In Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets weather intensifies the conflict and also serves as metaphor. An unexpected ice storm leads Sidra Smart, the protagonist, to rescue a half-frozen dog. He soon becomes an important character in the series.

Use setting to increase tension or set the mood. An electrical storm, for example, is a subtle way to build tension. So can an impending hurricane with no way to get out of town. In Dance On His Grave, Sidra heads into the swamp to see a Voodoo woman. Not only is Sidra tense about talking to someone who talks to dead people, but the ride through alligator-infested swamp where she sees her first Le Feu Follet heightens the tension and further sets the mood. (To the Cajuns of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas, Le Feu Follet (or dancing light) played a prominent role in the superstition and folklore.

WHERE the story is set determines the personality of your characters. Are they sophisticated or innocent? Are they "big city" New York or "small town" Orange, Texas? Is the detective a big-time cop or a small time private eye like Sidra in Dead Wreckoning. She is out of her element when she goes into the swamp with marine archaeologists to find a resurrected pirate ship.

Don’t give so much detail in your setting that you slow the reader down. If a reader looks at a paragraph and knows it is a description of the setting, you have a problem. Details should be sprinkled in throughout. Setting can also be revealed through dialogue and illustrated by a character's actions and speech patterns. Breaking it up and getting it across through these different techniques will keep your reader from becoming overwhelmed by it.

Love your setting, or hate it, but don’t feel indifferent about it. If you do, change it!

1 comment:

Malcolm Campbell said...

I've always felt that stories are associated with places. Nice to read a post about my favorite subject.