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!