On Your Mark, Get Setting, Go!

A few of my fridge magnets.

Writing a scene is a busy job. The characters in that scene are all supposed to Have Goals. The goals can be simple–let me eat my ice cream in peace!–or complicated: Find the bomb, diffuse it, get out safely and collect the king’s youngest daughter before the enemy’s guards swarm the throne room, and DO NOT SNEEZE even though the palace is overrun with cats to which our heroine is allergic.

The scene should contain tension, which is a job in itself. The point-of-view character’s goal is usually thwarted (sorry, your dude-ship). The character’s emotions are usually conflicted (it was a stupid goal anyway, and the princess is a pain in the behonkis on a good day, and ice cream is never as scrumptious as it’s supposed to be), and the other characters in the scene are generally throwing sand in the gears (because they DO want the bomb to go off).

Tea towel of Scottish wildflowers.

Wheee! With all that emotion and activity, the result can be “talking heads in a white room.” I’m guilty of this, at least in first drafts. I’ll be so focused on getting to the snappy repartee and ‘splainin’ the feels while the characters do the stuff, that I forget that this drama, or even this quiet moment of despair, takes place in a setting.

To neglect setting is to neglect an entire layer of the story, for in that setting will be a treasure trove of symbols, small and large, that add subtle depth and complexity to the tale: Westhaven’s relentlessly clicking abacus, the dilapidated estate Valentine is trying to salvage with its terrace “listing hard to port” like Valentine’s life, Nick’s mare Buttercup–the wrong mount for an earl’s heir, or is she? Tremaine, the shrewd, self-interested wool nabob who loves a late night snack in a warm, shadowy kitchen. Lucas Sherbourne, whose remote Welsh manor house is elegantly appointed but impossible to keep warm.

Some of my editorial assistants.

The physical realities in a character’s scenes should give the reader insight into the character’s interior life, longings, and secrets. Writers know this, and they also know that symbols and settings aren’t just for works of fiction. Many of my author buddies have a “glory wall,” or a place where they keep the visible reminders of their successes: A deal memo from a publisher, a glowing review, a landscape they snapped when researching their first novel.

Other authors go more for affirmations, or pictures of loved ones, or physical copies of the books that motivated them. These words and objects have the power to inspire, to reassure, to remind us of who we are or who we want to become.

Everybody’s symbols will be different, but we do know that the objects we keep around us tell part of our story. Can you think of a scene where the setting made a particular impact on you? If I was writing a scene about YOU, what objects would you want me to mention, and why?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio book of Too Scot to Handle, in honor of Colin and Anwen’s nomination for a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award for Best Historical Love and Laughter (urchins, represent!).

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19 comments on “On Your Mark, Get Setting, Go!

  1. 1

    For me the setting of the scene is where it all begins,if a book is to take me in I have to be there in that room or in a pretty garden facing whatever. When I was thirteen( many years ago) my teacher at school asked the class to write a story about a building and location that was significant to them.The school I attended was a very Georgian building in an area of many buildings of the same period including a theatre built in 1785′.I chose to write about the sweet shop across the road from the school.It was in a dark smelly alley called cranberry alley and several shops traded there.It had a very low ceiling many shelves which housed lots of glass jars containing sweets of every description. The shopkeeper was very old but sharp he had to be when his little shop was invaded by girls laughing giggling and pushing each other to get to the counter to be served.On the way out of the shop you had to be very careful of the step leading onto the pavement it was very old like the shop.The whole area was like living in a Dicken”s book.So I wrote my story and to my surprise I received a gold star,I still have the old blue essay book tucked away some where.A book can take you many places without moving from your comfy chair,isn’t that fantastic! A good author is the pilot and you buy the ticket.My eyes are not so good these days and whilst I still can read books I know that in the future I can listen to audio books Its a win win situation.

    • 1.1

      One of my granmothers owned a candy store, and your description took me back there. It was surprisingly dark inside The Candy Cane, which I guess keeps temperatures down and helps the candy stay fresh. I also remember lots of glass, both the jars and the display counters, and you’re right: Eager children and glass are not a good combination, but of all the times I’ve been in a candy store, I’d never made that connection until reading your comment.

  2. 2
    Linda L. says:

    Noah Winters comes to mind. The scene where he and Thea are in bed. When he realizes her chastity is no longer there and she gives a brief explanation. It touched my heart that he told her to “budge up”, he cuddled with her despite the betrayal and anger he might have felt.
    A scene where I am a central character would have to include my quilts and the stories they tell along with photos of my family. My husband, tall strapping sons (6’6″ and 6’7″ even though I’m 5’4″0, their wives and my 4 darling grandchildren.

    • 2.1

      Editors are always telling writers to get sensory details into the scenes, not because writing about textures, sounds, and smells leads to great literature, but because those impressions engage more of the imagination. You put the word “quilt” on the page, and I will FEEL the old, soft, worn-to-nothing quilts that were my “extra blankies” growing up.
      And the art or images a character chooses to have around them should always be significant, as should a lack of any art at all. I look around from where I’m sitting now and see exactly one framed image, but it’s a good one: An ink sketch of a cabin in the wilderness, done by my older brother when he was about sixteen.

  3. 3
    Teenie Marie says:

    I love your descriptions of those *late night snacks* and other meal or tea descriptions. I can almost taste the thick ham slices and mustard, bread and honey or the tea, prepared the way the hero or heroine prefers, of course!

    Meals are not islands of respite but often bring the story along and, I think, show something about the characters and what’s important to them. I can’t remember which of your heroines this us, but she does not eat like a bird, has a healthy appetite and the hero is impressed by that!

    You would need to include my Steinway and milk-glass, writing about me; both from my mother’s mother.

    • 3.1

      A piano in a scene almost HAS to be used, it’s such a big chunk of furniture. It might not be played–it might be tripped into, leaned against, polished, wrestled, pointedly ignored… and in your scene, all of that might relate to the influence of the person who gave it to you. This is giving me ideas. Interestingly, my own piano lives under quilt given to me by my sister. Hmmm.

  4. 4
    Sarah says:

    I know a scene is well described when I can smell it! I don’t know if it is only a trick of my own senses but I can sometimes be tricked into actually smelling what I am reading. Text also has texture to me, but only some of the time. I don’t know if it counts as Synesthsia, but it can be pleasant or unpleasant and sometimes very off-putting.

    If there were a scene around me, I think it would need an absurd and overwhelming TBR pile in the background.

    • 4.1

      Smells are so evocative because they are stored in our old, lizard brain, where very basic survival information is kept. Somewhere on last fall’s country house tour, I came across the idea that a housekeeper purposely kept different scents in different rooms. The library might be rife with lavender to protect the books from bugs and because lavender promotes mental alertness. The family parlor might smell of roses to mimic the lady of the house’s perfume. Papa’s study might get the cedar sachets because those complemented his pipe smoke. The intent was create a lot of positive associations by scent.
      So your scene with the towering TBR pile should hold a whiff of leather and vanilla, in honor of all the books.

  5. 5
    Beth says:

    I just want a couple of your editorial assistants. The paws (pun alert) that refreshes.

    • 5.1

      Beth, if you look at the gang of rogues, you’ll notice that second from the left is much smaller than everybody else. (The big yellow butt on the right is from a different, older litter). Runt arrived with the other three, hangs out with them, considers their mom his mom… but is a very, very small cat. I don’t know whether I’m looking at a dwarf kitten (there are such things), or a cuckoo somebody else left in the next. More to be revealed…

  6. 6
    Susan Gorman says:

    I enjoyed the library scenes in No Other Duke Will Do. Julian understood that Elizabeth loved books and needed a place to read. Elizabeth added a few touches to the room and it became their space. I imagined the comfortable feeling in the room. I like the exchanges that take place in the late night kitchen scenes in your books. The characters talk and share their feelings as they share sandwiches, sliced apples and iced tea. There’s a lot of honesty in these conversations and a lot of insight about the characters are revealed in these pages.

    You would need to describe my comfortable kitchen with its maple farm table, crocks full of utensils, Molly, the corgi who sleeps on the middle of the floor, a mug full of tea and a book or two on the table.

    • 6.1

      You mention a very important aspect of any scene: WHO is in it? Yes, the characters are there, but is Grandpa smiling down from the portrait above the mantel? Are the gardeners arguing just beyond the window? Does a tom cat with the same green eyes as the hero has eavesdrop on two sisters debating the hero’s merits? Molly’s presence right in the middle of the kitchen says something about you, and about the kind of household you’ve fashioned (lucky Molly!).

  7. 7
    Marianne says:

    I covet the Welsh duke’s reading room, but the scene I probably love the most is Valentine Windham’s communion with a community piano. The descendants of that piano, a stalwart upright, is often still found in practice rooms, community halls and primary school classrooms. A lot of them could use a Valentine, but some of them still sing better than they should given their construction, age and the ability of those of us who play them.

    My family writes a song for each of us as we reach our “decade” birthdays, so we have no doubt how the rest of the family sees us. You would see my messy bed, covered in papers, books, electronics and power cords. There is my row of medications, potions, heating pads, hot water bottles and ice packs.

    I look for lavender in the lemonade in your regencies; the gladioli in Damson Valley. With thanks.

    • 7.1
      Marianne says:

      “descendants are” My bad.

    • 7.2

      I recall that scene–thanks. I think I likened that piano to a dowager who’d fallen asleep at a gathering, her glasses askew, a few crumbs on her bodice–as if the piano was human. Now that I think about the book (The Virtuoso) I realize that one of the stumbling blocks Val faced was that he could not see his father as human. He saw his father as a self-absorbed duke, a meddling parent, and a pre-occupied, arrogant patriarch, but not as a person–flawed, loving, lovable.
      What an interesting pair of dots to connect ten years after writing a book. Thanks!

  8. 8
    Glenda says:

    Any scene relating to me would have cats and likely a dog in it. I can’t imagine not having pets and am lucky enough to work around cats and dogs. Your editorial assistants are adorable by the way. A glace at our home fridge would show a collage of magnets from various locations collected over the last 25 or so years. Our walls and shelves are filled with photos of family – especially the kids – as well as antique maps and a few landscapes.

    • 8.1

      I’m the same way. When I end the day and list five things I’m grateful for, the company of my cats is frequently on the list. They are just the right degree of interaction for me, many days. They don’t make a lot of noise (usually), but they have distinct personalities, needs, and demands. My dog is an dear, slow in many regards and not long for this earth, but he’s a comfort too. He sounds the alarum every time the mail truck stops–every time, all these years–and there’s comfort in that too.

  9. 9
    Anne Egger says:

    Hmm… well I love the mountains of North Carolina, they always make be happy. About me? Books, bookshelves, spoiled cats, tea, teacups, butter cookies, dusty, crooked art on the wall, wrinkled ink stained dress.

    • 9.1

      You make me want to visit you, Anne–tea and butter cookies!
      I grew up in Central PA, and I’ve wondered if part of my love of Scotland isn’t because it looks A LOT like my childhood home. The light is different, but the terrain is very similar. Then I learned that the western chunk of Scotland is actually a piece of Appalachia that broke off and went wandering until it smacked into Europe.
      And I also like Scotland because much of it does a great job growing big trees, another feature of where I grew up. Take away either feature–low mountains or big trees–and I’m likely to take a lot of pictures, but not stay long.