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"It Was a Dark and Stormy Night":
But Don't Forget the WHERE

© 2009 Andi Marquette

Hi, folks. Andi Marquette here with this month's writing discussion.

If you're familiar with the JAW archives, you'll see that Anna Furtado has done a couple of pieces here that deal with setting, which makes me most happy because I'm a setting junkie. I love writing it and I love reading it, and as Anna has pointed out, setting can be another character. So let's talk about how setting can work in your writing and then I'll suggest some exercises you can try out to see if they help you engage more of your powers of observation and help you understand how to better integrate descriptions of your settings with your narrative.

Anyway, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about "setting"? As Rebecca McClanahan points out in Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (1999), "setting" is about the physical place in which a story takes place, but it's more than that. It's when something takes place as well as where. McClanahan says that "setting grounds us, literally, in the fictional dream. And descriptions of setting provide the foothold, the physical and temporal vantage point from which to view the events of the story" (p. 171).

Does this mean you need to write long, massively detailed descriptions of the places in which your characters move? No. Its importance varies from story to story. In some, setting operates functionally, providing a stage for characters to interact. In other stories, the setting is the story, and it's a character that shapes the narrative. And many stories fall somewhere between. Remember, though, that settings in your stories are constantly changing because you're dealing not only with a physical place, but with time, and with what your characters see and remember.

A Sense of Place
So settings need to evoke a "sense of place" (that includes time) that your characters can relate to, whether they like the place/time or not. Even hostile interactions are interactions with settings. I'd also argue that "settings" include the objects within them, and how characters interact with objects can influence the pacing of your story. How much detail you incorporate depends on you and your personal style as well as the purpose of the description in the story. So you need to be thinking on all those different levels when you're writing descriptions of places, people, and things.

Beginning writers often group (or clump, as McClanahan says) descriptive details at the beginning of a story, or at the first appearance of a character or setting. What that ends up doing is unbalancing your narrative and disrupting flow. Usually, it's more effective to "sprinkle" these details in different places throughout your story, to break up those groups and better balance your pacing and maintain a reader's attention. It's tough to read a blow-by-blow description of a place or person, especially if the action preceding it was exciting. Jerking your reader from that to a long info-dump about the where of your action may cause a reader to stop reading, and that's the one thing you don't want when you're a writer. The only time you want your reader to stop reading is because they liked a passage so much they stopped so they could go back and read it again.

Remember, you're not throwing detail around randomly. Descriptive details about settings and characters, effectively placed, serve to heighten conflict and strengthen your plotline (McClanahan, Word Painting, p. 206). Description thus brings your plotlines together and the best writers weave setting (and character) descriptions together with character actions in such a way that the effect is seamless. Like my fellow author Joan Opyr says, good writing is like a machine. When it's working well, you don't notice the moving parts. If you do, then something's not working.

Setting can be a glue to bind character action to plot, a way to find out details about a character, and it can serve as a vehicle for pacing. Settings can thus do a lot of things for your story:

1) help with characterization
2) create tension in a story
3) help with pacing

So let's check it out!

Characterization: A place and how a character interacts with it can create certain moods in a reader, which, in turn, help a reader visualize a situation and action. Setting can also help an author flesh out a character-when you interact with your material and geographic world, you're broadcasting things about yourself to observers or, in this case, readers.

Let's think about that. What does "place" have to do with "who"? Well, think about regional differences right here in the US. Regional differences abound with regard to culture, language, and food. I don't think you're going to find green chile roasting stands in New England, just as you're not going to find people tapping trees for syrup in Mississippi. The environment in which you live influences, your activities and cultural points of reference as well as your personal identity and sense of place.

So, too, with the characters you write. Somebody who grew up in rural New Mexico, for example, is going to perceive the streets of Manhattan differently than someone who lives in Brooklyn (and vice versa). So when you write setting, you need to think about how a character is going to "see" it-what sorts of things is he or she going to notice, and why might that be? Think about the character's socioeconomic background. If she's from a blue-collar neighborhood in Detroit and she's visiting a wealthy friend's home for the first time, is she going to know what kinds of rugs those are on the floor? Or what kind of crystal vase that is serving as a centerpiece? Or is a wealthy businessman from London going to know what a "goo-goo cluster" or "turnip greens" are if his rental car breaks down in southern Tennessee?

Setting can thus help flesh out your characters and in so doing, provide more grounding in a place for a reader.
Shit. Aidan sighed and shook her head as the tow truck driver winched her pick-up onto his flatbed. She turned and hunched her back toward the late summer wind, her gaze sweeping south across Interstate 90, an attempt to absorb the Montana landscape and the impossibly blue sky overhead. She felt a harbinger of fall in the breeze, in the cool notes that grazed her t-shirt. She studied the distance, somewhat comforted by the enormity, and the anonymity.
That's the beginning to my unpublished short story "The Kindness of Strangers," which you can find on my website at What does that passage tell us about one, place and two, people? Place: That's pretty easy. Montana. Where in Montana? We're not sure yet, but we know it's along an interstate and we can guess that it's an isolated stretch, since Aidan's looking out across a landscape. When is this happening? August, maybe, because Aidan feels a bit of fall in the breeze and she hunches her back against the late summer wind. What can we glean about her mood? Well, probably frustrated and tired. After all, her truck's getting towed. What else might we know about Aidan from that passage? Maybe she's looking for something, because she gazes out across the landscape and instead of being worried or frightened by it, she's comforted by the enormity of the land and the sky and the "anonymity." She likes being unknown. So perhaps something happened in her past that makes her feel like she needs to "hide," somehow.
The glass door into the garage area was located to her right and three beat-up dark green chairs lined the front window while an equally exhausted coffee table held a scattered plethora of faded magazines. Aidan glanced around the paneled walls, noting the posters for various car parts and a calendar from a local doctor's office that showed landscape scenes. She sniffed and smelled oil, tires, and dust. It reminded her of her grandfather's garage and she smiled to herself. ("The Kindness of Strangers," by Andi Marquette)
Here, Aidan's at a garage and she looks around, noting the beat-up furniture and random things on the walls. But she also engages another sense-that of smell-and she thinks that the garage smells like oil, tires, and dust and that smell brings up a memory of her grandfather, so she smiles. What does this tell us about Aidan? It tells us that she's been around garages in the past, and that she associates them with her grandfather. We also know that she was probably close to her grandfather because she smiles when she remembers him.

Which brings me to another point. When you're writing setting, don't forget about the other senses. Smell, hearing, and touch can all evoke a sense of place, and can reveal things about characters, like Aidan's memory of her grandfather from the smell of a mechanic's garage.
Two more locals approached the counter with items and Meg turned to wander down the aisles. The feed store was as familiar to her as home. She loved how it smelled like the barns on the ranch, a pungent mixture of molasses from omolene and other animal chows, alfalfa, and leather. She studied the shelves. . .and listened to random snippets of conversation about the things that mattered here. Weather, cattle health, livestock for sale, who was sick, who just had a baby. . . . (excerpt from "From the Hat Down," by Andi Marquette, in Under This Cowgirl's Hat, ed. S. A. Clements [Torquere Press, 2007]).
Here, Meg's in a feed store, which means she's probably in a rural area or an area that's close to a rural population. She notes how things smell and that the smells remind her of home. She also hears people talking, and the conversations not only tell a reader that Meg is in a rural area, but that Meg herself is part of this rural culture and therefore, must be some kind of rancher-type. See how engaging other senses can convey setting and help with characterization?

Okay, let's move on to creating tension in a story: We can also think of "mood" here, and how a setting can set a certain tone for occurrences in a story, and help build a sense of anticipation for a reader.
She was making dinner. I hung my coat on the rack by the door and joined her in the kitchen, recognizing the smell of her marinara. Garlic, oregano, basil. The holy trinity, she'd told me once a long time ago, when she loved me. "You're late," she said, not looking up from the big stainless steel pot that sat on the stove, heavy with sauce and tension.
That's the beginning of my story "Cookies," which was published in the July 2009 issue of Khimairal Ink (available here: The characters are in a kitchen, normally a place we associate with food and fun. But here, the main characters are having a bit of trouble, it seems. One character notes the smell of marinara sauce, and remembers that the woman at the stove told her something about that sauce "when she loved her". The pot on the stove is heavy with sauce, but also tension. So a reader might wonder what's going on between these two people, and what's created this stress between them. The setting-a kitchen-helps a reader recognize that there's a level of intimacy here between the characters, but something's not right, as well. So she reads on, wanting to find out how the characters got to that point.

What about this view of a kitchen?
"In the kitchen," Brisa called out and Shay dutifully removed her flip-flops and latched the screen door before she padded across the thick Zapotec-style rug on the living room floor. Brisa had already put food out on the heavy wooden coffee table in front of the couch, Shay noticed, as she went through the dining area and beneath the arched doorway into el corazón de la casa, as Brisa referred to the kitchen. "Pour yourself a glass," Brisa instructed without turning from the tiled counter, where she was slicing a mango on a small wooden cutting board. She had changed into faded jeans and a loose denim shirt. Her dark hair hung free of its tie, falling around her shoulders.
Shay picked up the open bottle of California red wine from the counter to Brisa's left and poured it into the empty wine glass Brisa had set beside it. She set it down and watched Brisa work on the mango.
That's an excerpt from my unpublished short story "Dinner Party," which you can find on my website. This is a different sense of "kitchen." Brisa is in the kitchen, a room she refers to as "el corazón de la casa," or "the heart of the house." In this scene, the kitchen seems warm and welcoming, as Shay goes to hang out with Brisa while the latter slices a mango. The tiled counter references the Zapotec-style rug, telling a reader that Brisa has Latina roots or at least affinities, and a reader can get a sense of someone who likes bright colors, who likes spending time in her kitchen, and who seems like a hospitable soul, since she has wine out and invites Shay to pour herself a glass.

A reader might want to continue with this story because she's interested in how these two interact, what they might have to say to each other. And the comfort in the kitchen might trigger a reader to think about her own kitchen, and what sorts of feelings it evokes for her.

One more, to give you a sense of tension/anticipation:
Torri detached from her temporary companions and made it to the door before it closed. She placed the toe of her boot against the doorjamb. The door came to rest on the other side of her boot and Torri made a show of pretending to press her own thumb on the doorpad, suspecting surveillance pods hung on neighboring structures. She set her shoulder against the door and pushed, hoping its magnetic field hadn't fully engaged. It opened only a bit more so Torri increased her efforts, maintaining a steady pressure.*
In this excerpt from my published sci fi short story "Games with Chance," a reader is following Torri to a door and, presumably through a door. Clearly, Torri's not supposed to be here, because she pretends to press her palm to the doorpad and checks for surveillance pods. She's trying to get in to the structure, and a reader might wonder whether she does, and what will happen when she does. All we have here is the interaction of a character with a door, but in that setting, there's a sense of anticipation about what's going to happen next. So a reader reads on, we hope! Now for the citation stuff: "Games With Chance" can be found in the published novel Friends in High Places (Mindancer Press, 2009), The Year's Best Lesbian Fiction: 2008 (Nuance Books, 2009, ed. Fran Walker), or online at Khimairal Ink (October, 2008; Vol. 4, No. 3).

*Note. Yes, you will see there are what we call "participial phrases" in the above excerpt. Those are most often adjectival phrases that modify nouns. You can recognize them because of -ing words:
"Torri made a show of pretending to press…" "She set her shoulder…and pushed, hoping its magnetic field…"
Because this story is already published, I can't rewrite it, but I did want to point out that though there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a participial phrase (as long as it's used correctly), try to limit them to 2-3 per page. Like anything else in writing, less is more, and if you're not careful, you're going to end up with a whole bunch of -ing words that go on and on in a sentence or paragraph. Or you'll end up with weird constructions like this:
Looking out the window, she ran down the stairs.
Read that again. It doesn't quite make sense, does it? How can you both look out a window and run down stairs at the same time?

She looked out the window then ran down the stairs.

See the difference?

Since writing "Games with Chance," I've learned to be more watchful about the dreaded PPs (as I call them!). Thanks to Nann Dunne for smacking me upside the head about it again. We now return to your regularly scheduled discussion about setting.

See how a setting can help an author create a mood and a sense of anticipation?

All right, let's now look at how setting can help with Pacing: Rebecca McClanahan notes that "if during a passage of summary your story slows, one way to quicken the pace is to insert a concrete and sensory description" (p. 197). And, as she points out, if what you're describing isn't capable of independent action, use active verbs, to create the illusion of movement: "A city half-underground, buried to the shoulders in a stubborn stand against the climate" (from Friends in High Places). The active verb "buried" helps create an illusion of a city involved in an action, even though it's not. It's "buried" and thus, "taking a stubborn stand" though we know, logically, that the structures of a city can't move about on their own or consciously take a stand.

Again, Rebecca McClanahan: "One of the most effective ways to quicken your story's pace is to move from a static description of an object, place or person to an active scene. The classic method for accomplishing this is to have your character interact with the subject that's been described" (p. 200). I've used this technique here:
Meg arrived home Friday night just after midnight. She put the leftover grilled chicken from her "pre-birthday" dinner with Sean and Tim into her fridge then retrieved her mail from the box fastened to the wall next to the front door. She carried it into the kitchen to the small rectangular table that stood against a wall. The house didn't have a dining room, but Meg didn't miss one since she wouldn't have used it much.

She stood next to the table, looking through the mail. A credit card bill, an offer for a credit card, veterinarian conference notification--she stopped and stared at the last envelope, transfixed by the handwriting. She'd know Gina's small uniform capital letters anywhere. Meg looked at the return address, but she knew it would be Gina's parents' address in Sacramento. Gina had made it a habit when she was overseas to use that as a return address because she moved around on assignment so much...Meg left the other mail on the table and took the envelope into the living room. She carried it like it was a precious object, heart pounding...She lit the pillar candle on the coffee table and sat down on the couch so she could study the envelope further. Plain white, the size of a card but a little thicker than just that. Gina usually included a short letter or note, updating Meg on what was going on with her and her family. The stamps and postmark were Turkish. It had taken a week to get here. A week. Meg held the envelope in both hands. Barely a week separated her from Gina, a mere week embodied in this card. [From one of my unpublished novels.]
All right, where is Meg? She's at home. She goes into the kitchen and then to the mailbox then back to the kitchen, where she looks at her mail. Pretty mundane task, looking at the mail, right? Bill, credit card offer, vet stuff, then BAM. Another envelope, one that really catches Meg's attention. She's interacting, thus, with her surroundings and objects in those surroundings. She takes the envelope that has her interest out of the kitchen to the living room. Why? Maybe she needs a different milieu in which to read what's in the envelope. And indeed, she lights the candle on the coffee table, giving herself a bit of "atmosphere."

This could be pretty boring, except that I've added some things that keep the pace moving forward—Meg's transfixed by the handwriting on the envelope. So it means something beyond just an envelope to her. This is an envelope from someone who has some importance in Meg's life. We know this Gina is "on assignment" overseas, so Meg doesn't hear from her much. But we do know that this envelope represents something special, because Meg's heart is pounding as she looks at it and takes it to the living room, where she lights a candle and then sits and stares at that envelope, thinking about this Gina and what the envelope might represent.

These are mundane objects—a plain white envelope, about the size of a card but a little thicker. It has foreign stamps on it. You could see one of those in a lot of houses. And a coffee table with a pillar candle. Again, you can see those in a lot of houses. But I've tied those objects to the activities of a character, thus using setting and the objects within it to help move a story in the direction I want it to go (I hope!). And, because I've tied the objects to a specific point in time and a specific character's reactions, the objects take on a different significance than they would, say, in a business setting.

See how setting can help you develop your characters, create some tension, and help you manipulate pacing in a story? So how about some exercises to help get you thinking more along those lines? These require you to work on your powers of observation, too, which is crucial to writing effective settings and, by extension, descriptions. The majority of people who go about their day-to-day don't notice 99 percent of what goes on around them and there is SO MUCH going on! Whether it's the way the sunlight hits a leaf in the morning to how a block is lit up at night to the old gentleman down the street who takes his dog out around 5.30 every evening to the UPS truck that pulls up to the work-from-home woman's house next door about twice a week-observations about these things can help you create settings and characters for stories. The more in tune you are with your surroundings, the richer your world and thus the more nuanced and layered your writing.


1) This one is just a way to get your observation juices flowing. Take about 20 minutes every day to just observe. I recommend having a notebook and pen with you. Go to a park and sit on a bench and see what you notice. Write down what you notice. Like "delivery truck parked in front of grocery store. Middle-aged dark-haired man with paunch is taking boxes into store." Other good places to observe people: coffee houses, restaurants, museums, sitting on the steps of a library, sitting on your front porch, while on a walk with your dog, hanging out with your kids at a park. It's just 20 minutes a day and it requires that you get in tune with your surroundings. See what you can see, hear, smell. Remember, sight is just one of your senses.

2) I call this one the "found object" drill, but it doesn't necessarily require that you go out and find something. You can do this one all the time. Like, say, when you're visiting a coworker in his or her office. Notice what your coworker has on his or her desk. What do those objects tell you about your coworker? What kind of pens does she use? What pictures are on his desk? Where does he keep his coffee cup? Where does she put her lunch? What, if anything, is on the wall? Are there plants? You can play this game at stores, too, by looking to see what someone has in his or her cart. My favorite way to do the "found object" drill is to go to an antique store or even a flea market and browse. Find something that appeals to you for whatever reasons. Or pick out a random object-say an old butter churn-and imagine the story behind it. Whose was it? What did she look like? What kind of family did she have? Where might she have gotten the churn? Old postcards, too, are good ways to do this drill. Who sent it? What was she doing when she wrote it? What might she have been thinking? Was she traveling with friends? A lover? Children? What did she think about what she saw? Creating stories about objects engages not only your powers of observation, but also your powers of description and your imagination.

3) And finally, the "household item" drill. Do this one 2-3 times a week. Find something in your house-anything. Salt shaker, CD, candle on your table, photo, shoe on the floor, dog toy, cat toy, whatever. Sit and look at it for a few minutes. Really look at it. See how it's shaped, how its angles or curves create texture, how it looks in the light. Write these things down in your notebook. Then, after you feel you've written enough down, write a paragraph-no longer than, say, 10 sentences-describing it. Color, texture, how it feels in your hand, how it might smell, what it sounds like when you tap it. The purpose of this exercise is to engage your sight, yes, but also your other senses and to see how that works when you put it onto paper. You're exercising your "sense muscles," and it's going to feel a little weird at first, describing things that you look at every day. But exercises like this tap into new ways of looking at things, and thus new ways of incorporating them into your writing.

Soon, observing will become second nature and no matter where you are, no matter what you're doing, you'll notice things around you more often, and you'll be engaging more senses than just sight to do so and you'll be amazed at how much you were missing before you started doing this stuff.

All right, thanks for joining me on this journey through setting. Hope you found it useful, and happy writing!
Andi Marquette is a Westerner by birth and soul. She currently dwells in Colorado, where she writes novels, short stories, and whatever else she can. She also edits and hangs out with her dog. She is the author of the GCLS Goldie-winning Land of Entrapment, its sequel State of Denial, and the first installment in her sci-fi series, Friends in High Places. The third in her New Mexico series, The Ties that Bind, is due out in November, from Regal Crest. You can find info about that and more at her website:

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