Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Setting the Stage: by Olivia Miles

*Photo taken by Yours Truly on my last vacation.*
With most of the romance community at RWA this week, I've decided to give those of us "left behind" a little getaway of our own. I realized the other day that I haven't gone on a vacation or even left town in about two years - Yikes! It's a funny thing, but most of the trips I take these days are through my imagination. I've been so busy escaping to snow-covered main streets or rustic seaside towns that sometimes I am startled to look up from the computer screen and realize that I am sitting at my very own desk. In Chicago.

I've always thought that one of the greatest escapes in life is the simple act of sitting down with a good book. Without leaving the comfort of your own armchair, you can be transported into a whole other world. Well, the same goes for the writing of those books. As much as I love the idea of whisking myself away to a variety of exquisite destinations, as a writer, I do tend to write what I know it terms of location. Sure, I fictionalize the settings a bit and highlight some of the prettiest elements, but for the most part I draw on personal experience. Here's the thing, though: I only pick my favorite places - the places that inspire me the most. When I am immersed in writing a book set in that place, for a little while at least, I am there. And it's wonderful.

The real responsibility of the writer, of course, is to bring a story to life. This extends beyond the characters to include the backdrop. You have to transport the reader. I recently did a round of revisions on a book and as soon as I started going through it, I knew I had to change the location. Sure, the original location worked in the technical sense, but it really didn't add enough scenery to the story. Simply put, I wasn’t swept away. As soon as I changed that one element, I immediately knew that this was somewhere I wanted to be, and I paid special care in describing the sights, sounds, and even smells in a way that would evoke the same desire in someone else. After all, if a reader is going to invest a certain amount of time in the story, don't you think they want to make sure they really get everything they want out of their visit?

Here are a few things I consider when I am setting the stage:
  • Climate. What's the temperature like? What do your characters wear? What does the air smell like? Like crunchy leaves? Like snow? Like rain?
  • Architecture. Are the buildings made of stucco or stone? Tell the reader. They need to know where they are!
  • Landscape. What kinds of plants grow there? Are there rolling hills or flat, open roads? 
  • Sound. Is it a bustling city filled with honking horns or a beach town with crashing waves? What's going on behind the characters' words? 
  • Color. Nothing brings a story more to life than a vivid setting. What color are the flowers and the leaves? What color are the doors on the houses?

Hmm...doesn't this give a whole new meaning to that old saying location, location, location?


  1. As I'm approaching the 2nd revision stage, thanks for the reminder of setting. It's easy to become so wrapped up in the characters and before you know it they are floating into nothingness.

  2. Into the abyss! The beauty of going back is layering in things like the setting or other little details that pull it all together - s much more fun than the original draft in many ways. Good luck on your second round of revisions!

  3. Great post, Olivia! I agree-a good book has the power to truly transport you to a different place. And I think that writing about places that you love (or think you love) will come across in your book. I even have favourite seasons-I'm inspired by autumn, and I'm a total sap for winter/Christmas. I could go on and on describing the setting...hmm, maybe that's another post...when too much is too much ;-)

  4. Great post on setting--it can be easy to overlook this element, and a setting can feel like a character in some books. It's such an important part of the story!