When you’re reading, do you picture the world the author’s built? Do you sense how it sounds and smells, and what it looks like, to see the buildings and natural world the characters inhabit? A book’s setting not only rounds out the image you create as you’re reading, but it helps to understand a character’s motivations and behaviour. Our environment dictates our responses to the world around us as much as anything.
As a writer, I know how important it is to portray the time and place of your characters’ world and to build that world so the reader pictures it in their mind. But it’s a fine balance. Writers need to give enough detail without overdoing it. Personally, if I have to read pages and pages describing the way the grasses bend in the wind, my concentration wanders. Too many details bog down the story rather than move it forward. I often want to scream at the writer to get on with it and jump ahead to the action.
Some writers do this better than others. Those that do it well are a joy to read. Especially if it’s a place and time I’ve never experienced. I love to feel I’m there, in the same world as the characters. There are so many to choose from but here are a few who do it well:
SWEETLAND by Michael Crummey
When the federal government decides to relocate the dying community of a remote Newfoundland island, Moses Sweetland refuses to go. Against bitter weather, lashing storms and phantom ghosts of long-gone family and friends, Sweetland tries to tough it out alone. You’ll feel the chill in your bones as you follow this extraordinary character’s last journey. A superb storyteller with a profound love for his native Newfoundland.
BY GASLIGHT by Steven Price
A seriously long book but well worth the read. A compelling story, memorable characters and a brilliant sense of place & time. You can almost feel the damp and fog of old London as you creep along its festering cobblestones dodging those grimy urchins. Set in 1885, the story follows Pinkerton, the famous detective and Adam Foole, a gentleman thief. Haunted by their pasts, their paths eventually collide as they search for an elusive character who sparks a chain of events lingering over two continents. A wonderful read.
BRIGHT SHINY MORNING by James Frey
Often when we think of setting, it’s a place and time in history that comes to mind. So, what a surprise this collection of stories is about the inhabitants of contemporary L.A. From homeless alcoholics to young runaways to superstar actors, this book is like watching a car accident - we know it will end badly but are braced for it and can’t look away. LA is the land of sunshine and dreams but the underbelly is anything but. Not shying away from that reality, the author traces the history of the city sprinkled with interesting facts while portraying those who live there with a laser focus. A mesmerizing and utterly original book.
THE NIGHT STAGES by Jane Urquhart
This book brilliantly weaves several stories together while detailing the beauty of Ireland and the human capacity for love and loss. First there is Tam, an English woman who has just left her married lover and is now grounded in an airport in Gander, Nlfd. Then there is her lover Niall, a meteorologist tormented by his lost brother and his cold passion to beat him at all costs. There is then this brother, Kieran, and his troubled childhood that drives him to the mountains and a life of loneliness. Over all these stories is the mural that looms large in the Gander airport and the painter who created it. Each character is richly drawn, their emotional life beautifully captured, and the setting elegantly portrayed.
THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue
Rural Ireland in the 1850s is a place of religious fervor and superstition. Among the deep-set beliefs of an illiterate family is a young girl fasting and slowly starving herself to death. Is she truly living on air, light, or the love of God? A young English nurse, skeptical and impatient, is hired to keep watch to see if she is eating on the sly or is truly a spiritual wonder. A captivating story that marvelously captures religious mania in backwater Ireland.
UNDER THE VISIBLE LIFE by Kim Echlin
A beautifully written book by a very talented writer. Two women from opposite sides of the world are united over tragic circumstances and their shared passion of piano and jazz. The story alternates between them from their childhoods through love, families, and losses. As they collaborate musically, the story moves back and forth between Montreal and New York, evoking smoke-filled jazz clubs, the industrial cityscape of Hamilton, a leafy university campus and the dusty fields of Afghanistan. The author has a brilliant knack for language and a vivid sense of place and emotion.
A STUDENT OF WEATHER by Elizabeth Hay
Two sisters very different from each other, fall for a young botanist working in rural Saskatchewan during the Depression of the 1930s. Their rivalry sets the stage for a narrative that moves between Ottawa and New York over the next 30 years as they try to recover from the choices they made when young. Beautifully written.
THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung
Anyone who’s lived in suburbia will readily relate to this collection of short stories. Through them we see inside the hearts of a group of people spanning racial, cultural, class and age lines grappling with the realization that not everything is perfect despite their carefully manicured lawns, identical new houses and children playing outside picture perfect windows. Author absolutely nails the heartache of adolescence while capturing a unique slice of Canadian living.
As well as establishing the place where events take place in a story, the setting depicts theme through metaphor, influences the way characters behave, affects the dialogue, foreshadows events, invokes an emotional response, and reflects the society in which the characters live. It’s a critical element that many writers struggle to get just right.
What part does setting play in your reading? Do you prefer having most of the details left to your imagination or do you like having the setting clearly defined? What books have you read that use setting as a major element in the plot? Do you ever choose books based on their setting?
I’d love to know your thoughts - leave me a comment and always feel free to share my blog with other readers and writers.