Saturday, September 10, 2011


My son and I took a short trip to San Diego last January. We were visiting my brother Erik and his family. It was a coming home of sorts, since I grew up in L.A. County and went to school in San Diego. I love California and Washington, but they're quite different from one another.

One morning when I woke up at my brother's house, I made note of all the things that told me I was back in Southern California before I even got out of bed. The first things I noticed were the sounds. Before I opened my eyes, I heard the birds of my childhood. Listening, I imagined the bedroom I grew up in, and I could recall the feeling of waking up at age eleven, sixteen, or just about any other age between five and eighteen. Putting myself back in time, I could imagine other sounds I'd heard from my bedroom, like the trickle of water from the backyard pool and the stirrings of my parents after bedtime. Then I pictured my dorm room and remembered how it felt to be nineteen. In my mind, I could hear the church bells that rang on campus.
Opening my eyes, I saw the sunlight pushing through the cracks of the blinds and lighting the room even though it was still early. The room was warm. In January! Something else that brought me back, kicking up more memories.

Waking up in Washington on a January morning is different. I often wake to the drizzle of rain or, if it's a quiet rain, I hear water falling from the rain gutter. The room is dark and, even with the heat on, there's a chill in the air.

I pick up on different scents in each place. Obviously, right? Plant life varies from region to region, and seasons, tides, and other factors can also come into play. When I first moved to Washington, I noticed a new smell in my hair whenever I had been outside. I remember trying to identify it. Was it from the trees? The moist earth? The damp air? It wasn't unpleasant, just new.

None of these details are terribly exciting, but I think they're worth noting. I love it when a book I'm reading does setting well. I want to see where a character is--and feel it, smell it, hear it. This is also what I hope to create. Through our characters, we can tie emotions to the things they notice, bringing our settings to life.

Setting can affect mood. Rain can make a scary scene creepier or a romantic scene cozier. A sun that is high in the sky can be something to play under or something to escape.

Setting can be overlooked or neglected, and I'm striving to use it to strengthen my scenes. On the flip side, I'm aware it can be overdone, or the details can come at the wrong time and slow the pace of the story. Sometimes the setting of a book can be written so well it feels like a character in itself.

I'm barely scratching the surface on setting in this post, merely noting thoughts and observations I made about two places I call home. Of course we all hope to always grow in our writing; this is an area where I'd like to push myself. For excellent writing tips on setting (and so much more), check out THE FIRE IN FICTION by literary agent Donald Maass.

What books do you think have great settings?
I'll start by naming the books in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Totally amazing, right? I also love the setting in Carrie Ryan's THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH.

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Just for fun. . . Here's a picture of my brother Erik and me. He came to visit a few weeks ago, and it was so great to see him!


Dawn Simon said...

Note: I edited this post this morning. (Who are you calling obsessive-compulsive? Tee-hee!)

Angelina C. Hansen said...

I loved this, Dawn. One of my favorite things is to drive through downtown in my hometown in summer and take in the smells coming from all the restaurants. And I know those So Cal bird sounds (doves). And up here it's the mountain chickadees. Okay, I'm done now ^_^

Michelle said...

I love a good creek scene, with rippling water and the scents of rainforest.
My greatest, early memory of a scene in a book was "James and the Giant Peach"

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

That was lovely...

The last time I was in England I wrote a description of "my" room at my grandparents house. It's one of my favorite places in the world. I come up with some of my best stories when I'm visiting them.

Dawn Simon said...

Thanks, Angelina! I love the coos of mourning doves. I bet all the restaurants smell yummy.

Michelle, fun memory!

That sounds nice, Sharon. I think about my grandparents' homes and wish my kids could experience hanging out in them! I have so many fond memories of their homes. It's really special that you can write there.

WA said...

I have to agree with you about the Harry Potter series. And though I'm not a foodie I loved Under the Tuscan Sun. It made me feel like I was there.

Dawn Simon said...

WA, I haven't read it, but it sounds wonderful! They even talked about setting details in the reviews I read! Thanks for sharing!

Medeia Sharif said...

I agree with HP and Forest. Great setting in those two.

I'd like to enhance setting in my work. Sometimes I feel like I don't build it up enough.

Dawn Simon said...

Medeia, I totally get it. It's something I'm working on too.