Hi, SEers! Mae here with a post about setting. Often when we start planning a novel, we’re focused on developing characters and plot. We know where our novel is set, but how much time do we spend fleshing out details? Do we give it the same amount of attention as we give the background and quirks of our characters? The ebb and flow of our plot?
Think back to some of your favorite books. Despite how much we love a story, often times our memory of it fades with the passing of years. The protagonist probably stands out in your mind, along with a few disjointed memories of plot. But what about the setting? Surprisingly, setting is often what readers remember most, especially when it’s played for mood.
I’m going to give you a few examples. One of my favorite books (which I’ve read two, perhaps three times) is The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett. Book Five of the Lymond Chronicles, my paperback copy comes in at 640 pages. That’s a lot of pages, which means there’s a lot taking place. It’s probably been ten years since I last read the book, but to this day when I think of it, I remember the setting—tsarist Russia. I remember the bitter cold, the winter landscapes, the pomp and gilded excess of Ivan the Terrible’s court. Dunnett brought that setting so vividly to life, I absolutely can NOT think of The Ringed Castle, without immediately focusing on the setting.
The Terror by Dan Simmons is another book that positively oozes setting. At 955 pages in paperback, this fictional account of the search for the Northwest Passage, and tragic loss of the ships Erebus and Terror has a lot of plot to cover. Once again, what I remember most is the glacial arctic setting of ice and snow, long days of darkness, crystalline stars, and the crack and thunder of the Northern Lights. I read this book poolside during the sweltering heat of a long-ago July, but Simmons made me feel the excruciating cold and the wonder of his winter setting.
Amazonia by James Rollins took me to the gummy heat of the jungle and the lush surroundings of the Amazon rainforest. Rollins gave me 510 pages of a fascinating and exhilarating plot, but he also delivered a setting that got under my skin and is easily resurrected when I think of this book.
Even if you write fantasy or sci-fi, you can still weave a setting that will leave your readers spellbound. To this day, I remember the shadowed and sinister Forest of Black Sun Rising, the cold marble beauty of Gerald Tarrant’s castle and the dazzling current of the “fae” as it flowed across a land rich in contrasts. C. S. Friedman held me mesmerized for 595 pages.
These are just a few examples that stand out in my memory, but there are many more. The very first book that enchanted me as a child—The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden—did so by utilizing setting. I don’t remember much about the main character, a spoiled, bratty girl, but I can recall being enthralled with the spooky old house, and its portraits of ladies in long flowing gowns.
Setting speaks to readers every bit as much as our characters do. Take the time to wrap your readers in the full scope of your chosen setting—evoke mood along with the details—and they’ll hold those memories for years and decades to come.
When you think back over cherished books, do you recall the settings with fondness? Do you remember them vividly? What are some of your favorite books where setting stood out as much as the characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Ready, set, go!