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Posts Tagged ‘setting’

Many writing-related books and blogs I’ve read suggest using sensory elements to make the setting richer and more realistic. The toughest one for me to convey in my writing is the sense of taste. I’ve included scenes where characters were eating, but have been stumped as to how to describe the tastes without making it seem like a deliberate writer’s ploy. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a foodie, and absolutely hate cooking, but tastes are normally not something I think about—which makes them awfully hard to write about.

Yesterday 2 of my sisters and I spent the day sorting through the remaining items in our mother’s house, deciding what was worth donating, what should be discarded, and what we would keep to use ourselves—or save as mementoes of a woman who had impacted our lives more than any other. Afterwards, we went to the Cracker Barrel restaurant where each of us had taken our mother on many occasions. The sights, the sounds, the entire setting of that restaurant brought back memories that are precious to me, but the tastes were what reminded me most of my mother. I experienced firsthand how much emotion certain tastes can trigger, and how food really can have an important role in our lives.

All 3 of us chose chicken and dumplings as our main course, with cornbread to go with it, simply because that’s what my mom always ordered at Cracker Barrel. I even ordered lemonade and country green beans (not together!) in honor of her. As we ate, we compared our meals to the ones Mom had prepared for us as children. Her dumplings were heavier, somewhat doughier, but had a similar taste. I recognized the flavor of lard on the green beans; my mom always and only used lard as a flavoring. She saved the bacon drippings in a pink can next to her stove, and used it in beans, mashed potatoes, and gravies. It wasn’t until we all left home, and my dad died, that she started using store-bought cooking oils (Crisco), and that was only because she had no one to cook bacon for.

Memories of her will always be with me even though she is not; and though I may not be any better at describing tastes in my stories, I know that dumplings and green beans will forever remind me of my childhood and my mom.

 

 

What foods or tastes carry special memories for you? Which of the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, vision) is hardest for you to include in your writing? Do you agree that including tastes or descriptions of food in a story helps convey emotions or can have special meaning, or does it seem unnecessary to you?

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I’ve frequently heard that writers are supposed to “show instead of tell,” but that isn’t always easy to do. When it comes to settings, I think it can be especially hard.

 

Setting is more than a location or time period. Among other things, it provides a frame of reference for readers, affects the tone, supports a theme, and adds to characterization. It can also detract from those aspects of a story if the setting isn’t appropriate or memorable.

Sometimes pictures speak louder than words, but unless we’re writing a picture book we must depend on words to convey our meaning. Long narratives describing the setting can be overwhelming and boring, and many people skim over those kinds of passages (me, too!). It can be more effective and interesting to integrate specific, important details of the setting into the story itself, allowing readers to imagine the big picture.

 

To illustrate my point, I’ve included a few photos from my recent vacation. With each, I’ve added a basic caption regarding the setting; underneath I’ve mentioned why the picture is memorable to me. I hope those comments will help you get a feel for the setting where each one occurred. (Plus this gives me a chance to share a few of my favorite vacation photos without violating my blog’s writing-related theme. 🙂 )

 

Conservatory at the Bellagio hotel

Thousands of flowers blended with fountains, birds, and storybook characters in a fantastic panorama at the Bellagio hotel.

 

Bally and Paris hotels at night

The lights at night made even conservative structures like the Bally hotel appear amazing, while turning the beautiful ones into spectacles that took my breath away.  

 

Dinner on Thursday

This decorated chicken breast resting on a few pieces of asparagus was the main course in the most expensive meal I ever ate.

 

view from the plane before takeoff

I never expected to see palm trees lining the roads while mountains loomed in the distance. Nothing at all like rural Indiana.

 

 

Here’s one where the setting wasn’t important; it was the people I was with that made this one memorable.

Lisa and Carol

I don’t even remember exactly where we were, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep plodding along. Getting a picture taken with my daughter gave me a welcome break without having to whine that I was tired!

 

For more information on setting, I recommend these sites:

 

My post from 4/13/10 on the importance of setting.

Setting Is More Than Mere Time And Place    An article on setting. The site also covers many other writing-related topics.

Setting: Writing a Story With Atmosphere This article discusses setting in some depth. It also contains lots of helpful tips on writing novels.

 

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Do you focus on the setting as much as you do the plot and characterization? Is setting important in nonfiction? What details do you like to know about the setting when you’re reading a book? Have you gone anywhere interesting on vacation this year?

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Setting is the time and place where a scene occurs. It can help set the mood, influence the way characters behave, affect the dialog, foreshadow events, invoke an emotional response, reflect the society in which the characters live, and sometimes even plays a part in the story.  It can also be a critical element in nonfiction as the setting provides the framework for what is being discussed.

To make the setting come alive, it’s important to include significant details. That doesn’t mean describing everything the characters see, or giving a complete history of where the scene occurs. Giving enough information to help readers visualize the setting is important, but too many minor details will bog down the story rather than move it forward.

There are ways to clarify the setting without using long descriptive passages. For example:

a) The type of vocabulary the characters use can suggest where they live or where the scene occurs. Teens from Chicago will sound different from teenagers in rural Kentucky. Ordering a Caramel Macchiato implies a more sophisticated restaurant than if the character orders an orange soda (although I personally order pink lemonade where ever I go—except in winter, when I want a hot chocolate with whipped cream on top.)

b) The weather can indicate the time of year, or general location of the scene. Mentioning a hurricane, or snow, will give readers clues as to where or when the story takes place. The fragrance of a certain flower wafting on a gentle breeze suggests a different setting than the smell of asphalt permeating the air.

c) Describing a dark, gloomy house or a shadowy forest can suggest something suspenseful may occur, setting the tone as well as giving details about the location. Candles flickering can either hint at romance or suggest a religious scene; adding other details will help clarify their significance.

d) Give the setting a purpose to fulfill. An exotic location can be a backdrop for a steamy romance or a wild adventure. A mountainous terrain can be a source of danger and add suspense. A hospital waiting room can suggest trauma and pain, adding tension to the story.

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What part does the setting play in your writing? Do you prefer having most of the details left to your imagination or do you like having the setting clearly defined? What books can you think of that use setting as a major element in the plot? Do you ever choose books to read based on their setting?

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