“What are men to rocks and mountains?” (Jane Austen)
Ms. Austen had a flair for creating believable men AND mountains. On the other hand, although I love characters and dialogue, the weakest link in my writing is my ability to describe settings—whether they’re mountains or mole hills. My imagination focuses on my characters and tends to blur around them. I have to work to add settings into my stories.
If your writing suffers from “setting deficiency,” here are four suggestions to create memorable settings that help me:
- Use Google Maps. It’s easier to describe something that actually exists. It helps to find locations on Google Maps that fit your setting. Get close enough to be in street view by pulling your desired location into the center of the map and clicking the “+” button until an actual picture of the street appears. When you are as close as possible, you can “drive” the very streets that you would like to describe, paying attention to interesting details. Since I like to outline my novels, I’ll take a screenshot of the scene I’d like to describe and paste it into my outline (by holding down “Shift” while pressing the “Prt Sc” key, then pasting the image into my outline document.) What if your setting doesn’t actually exist? Even fantasies and science fiction have familiar elements (like a government building or a castle) and those things do exist on this earth and can be seen by Google Maps. Then let your imagination create a few fantastical features.
- Find three elements of your setting to “point out” to the reader. In Jane Austen’s day, a description of a finely featured room, might take an entire page in a book. However, today’s readers don’t have that kind of patience. An author has to capture a setting in just a few sentences. It helps me to focus on only three critical characteristics of the setting, finding features that are significant to the plot. In your enthusiasm to add background, don’t overwhelm your reader with numerous unimportant details.
- Have your characters interact with the setting. You can slip in more than just three details about your location when your characters interact with the background. Readers learn about a character’s surroundings when she sits on a bench, feels sand between her toes, or even steps in dog poop, and how she reacts with her setting helps us learn about a character’s personality. Don’t forget to use all your character’s senses, not just sight, as she lives in the world you create. The coolness of the marble bench, the salty taste of the ocean air, or the pungent stench on a shoe are integral to the whole description.
- Finally, when your story is finished and you are self-editing, make a separate editing pass, focusing only on setting. Make sure each scene is grounded in a location so that dialogue doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Then ask one of your beta readers to read do the same.
Spending time creating your setting is worth your time. Remember, if the picture in your head doesn’t make it onto paper, then it’s likely lost forever … which would be a pity, if the picture in your head is of majestic “rocks and mountains.”