Location, location, location – that’s what the old real estate sales slogan proclaims. The advice applies to more than selling your spinster aunt’s crumbling brownstone. Location in writing matters too.
When you’re really into a book and the words paint a vibrant image of where the story is happening, the location becomes a character. The cobblestone streets, worn inner city apartment buildings, open air cafes or living rooms with plastic-clad furniture influence how all the characters interact with one another. When it’s done well, the setting doesn’t smack you upside the head, it comes off light as a feather. Setting guides rather than dictates, it informs without distraction.
I enjoy writing with a specific location and setting in mind. It gives the reader something to “feel” in the story. Reader’s imaginations are a powerful tool, wind them up, sprinkle in a little setting and let them go. I’m revising a medical thriller, dealing with hospitals. You’d expect a sterile hospital setting – dull and boring. So, I shook it up a bit and set the location in a children’s hospital transplant unit, with small scale beds and toys that go unused by children too weak to get out of bed. Textures and smells are important in setting. If you’ve been in a hospital, you’ve been hit with the unmistakeable medicinal odor and the sand paper rough bed linens. They evoke a feeling, one the injects the reader into that place.
A few examples where an author threaded setting into the fabric of the story that stand out to me are:
- The Witching Hour by Anne Rice This early Anne Rice novel describes the Mayfair mansion is such haunting detail that you smell the Spanish moss and feel the warm Southern breezes. I wasn’t as enthralled by the setting in the Wolf Gift, a more recent Rice novel, in which the description on the setting, in my little mind, went on a bit far, to the point of distraction.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker This was the first book I remember scaring the crap out of me. I read this in eighth grade and jumped out of my skin when the school bell rang. I was transported to a cold, rock lined Transylvanian castle with vampires, way before they sparkled.
- Firelands by Piper Bayard Science fiction and dystopian world writers have a tough road. World building without feeling like a winged creature took a massive info-dump on your head, is an art. Piper Bayard pulls off a unique dystopian world in as much detail as the story requires, no more and no less. The setting is very much a character in her story and the way she lays it out, you can feel like you are there with her main character. I recommend this one and look for more from Piper in the future.
- Murder in the Marais by Cara Black For some reason, I put off reading this series, featuring a woman private detective in Paris. My bad. I’ve rectified my grievous error. This author makes Paris a central character in the story and does so very well. From wet cobblestone streets, damp, cold pre-war buildings to the smells that make Paris unique are all interwoven to guide and at times frustrate Amiee Leduc in her investigations.
What about you? Which books and authors pulled off the setting as character and transported you “into” the story? Let’s make a let of our all time favorites.