Have you ever started to read a book where you got to the third chapter (or sooner) and tossed it aside because you weren’t engaged?
To engage readers, writers often focus on developing multi-dimensional characters and character journeys and backstory, but we neglect that all-important setting.
When handled properly, setting becomes as much of a character as the people themselves. I recently completed my father’s memoirs, a story of growing up in Newfoundland in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When most people hear “Newfoundland”, they think of Shipping News, or, if they are of a ‘certain’ age, Farley Mowatt’s A Whale for the Killing.
My father’s story, which releases in the general market version in October as The Physics of Love, is nothing like either of those books.
His situation—learning that his ‘sister’ was actually his mother; that his father was actually his grandfather; that his biological father wanted nothing to do with him; and that the woman he called Mom wasn’t even related to him by blood—are not unique in and of themselves.
What makes this story unique is the setting—a small outport town with few amenities and fewer luxuries, on an island with commercial ties to both Canada and the United States but with no official or governmental standing of its own. At the time of the start of this story, Newfoundland was a dominion in the British Empire, and wouldn’t become part of Canada until 1949 after a hotly-contested and probably fixed election.
A unique setting accomplishes three things:
- It becomes a character on its own merits, as discussed above. Change the setting, change the story. The Old Man and the Boat is a completely different story than Jaws, although both involve boats and big fish.
- It adds depth to the people in the story as we learn why the characters made the choices they made—they had no other choice because of the setting, which can exert physical, emotional, or cultural forces.
- It exposes readers to a new set of life experiences that they wouldn’t have experienced had the story been set elsewhere.
So in the next book you read, ask yourself if the setting is critical to the story, or if it could be set somewhere else. In The Physics of Love, for example, I could have set it in almost any small town in Newfoundland, but had I moved it to New York City, that would have changed the story completely.
If the setting is important, look for ways the author strives to enforce that idea. It doesn’t simply happen by mentioning the name of the town or describing the setting in detail—importance is defined by how much it impacts the characters and their decisions.
Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with her husband Patrick, who is her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and online at: www.HiStoryThruTheAges.wordpress.com. Her books are available at Amazon.com in digital and print. Click here to subscribe to her free quarterly newsletter.