A sense of place is pivotal when writing a novel. It’s important to hook your reader but also to keep them, and immerse them in the world you created. From the haunting moors of Wuthering Heights to the expansive Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, the environment can create atmosphere, drama and even, as many have said before, become a character in its own right.
The latest instalment in the On Writing series looks at the power of setting with Erik Storey, author of the outstanding Clyde Barr series, resident of the Colorado high deserts and former ranch hand, wilderness guide, dogsled musher and hunter. Erik’s unique understanding and experience of his environment shines through in his debut Nothing Short of Dying and now in A Promise to Kill, the rip-roaring follow up which is out this week. The wilderness has never been more beautiful and brutal – make sure to check them out if you haven’t already.
Your setting is at the core of your writing, how did it affect the shape of your novels in terms of character, plot, tension, etc?
The setting is at the core because I believe it is extremely important, second only to the characters who roam and fight and love in the world that I’m describing. I actually came up with the idea for my first book by thinking of where I wanted it to take place. There aren’t many books that are set Colorado wilderness, so I decided to try and write one. Once I had the location and came up with characters tough enough to live in the area, the rest was relatively easy.
Setting is so important because of how it can be used to affect all that the question mentioned, and more. It can also become a character of its own. In a wilderness setting, storms and extreme temperature shifts can be used as villains, or as ways to raise tension and harass the characters. Same for traffic jams and stuck elevators if you set your novel in a major city. On the other hand, setting can be used as a sidekick for the characters if they are smart and use their environment to their advantage. The same storms and elevators could be used by a wily character as a way to better their odds against an enemy that doesn’t have the same knowledge of the setting.
What do you think is the most important thing to get right with your setting? Do you have any techniques that you use in order to ensure this?
I believe the number one thing to get right is the feeling of the place. This sounds obscure, like a grand generalization, but stay with me and I’ll explain. When you look back and think about a place you are fond of, or a place that you loathe with all your heart and soul, what do you remember? You remember how the place made you feel. This feeling is an accumulation of remembered stimuli and details, and these have to be spot on in order for the reader to feel the same way about a setting. If you are writing about a real place, then the small details need to be right because people live there or visit there and they want it to be right. And others want to get a genuine feel of the place, so the details help. Not too many, so that it doesn’t bog down the story, but enough to put the characters in a real world. The black gum marks on the sidewalks next to the streets that smell of urine in a city. Or the burble of the small creek lined by Aspen trees that smell of licorice when wet.
This brings me to another point, and an important and overlooked one in my opinion. Fiction is one of the few mediums that allow us to try and convey the sense of smell and taste. By all means use them. Have your characters go to a popular diner in the city, and describe one of the locals’ favorite dishes. If camping, have the characters eat the memory-evoking s’mores or a can of pork and beans. Describe the smells of the pine trees with a small breeze blowing through them, or the smell of exhaust and ocean that permeates cities by the sea.
You have first-hand experience living in the Colorado wilderness, how much research do you think is necessary for setting?
I think research is essential. First hand is best, if possible. If you can, walk the streets of the place you want to write about. Walk the trails. Talk to the people that live or visit there. Take notes on the weather, sunsets, smells, strange sights, and the small things that make the place different. These are the details that matter and make the setting real in the reader’s mind. Nowadays you can use Google Earth, YouTube and other internet tools to research, but you only get the audio and video of the place. Which are important, but not near as important as the things you can’t get from a movie or clip. Books allow us to tap into the other senses and bring in memories and feelings. Because of this, it is imperative that writers try and get the small things right. There is a reason so many writers place their books in the area that they live in and love.
If you were to write about any other place where would it be?
Because of an immense closeness with my area, I would say that I’d be leery to write about anywhere else. But if I did, I would want it to be similar in climate and peoples and vegetation. Semi-arid deserts or tall mountain ranges anywhere in the world would be acceptable, if I were to switch locales. Australia, the Himalayas, South Africa (or other smaller parts of Africa) would all be fun to write about, and my lead character Clyde would thrive in any of those spots. It would also be fun, considering how anti-technology and backwoods Clyde is, to put him into a city and see how he fares. The only problem there would be the research involved. I’m very similar to Mr. Barr, and would have almost as hard of a time researching the area as he would navigating it.
Which authors do you consider to be masters of setting and why?
There are so many that I admire and respect for their prowess in setting that it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ll try by naming a few of my favorites. There is a common theme running though the list, however, and it’s the fact that all of them are writing about a place they know and love.
- Louis L’Amour—He walked the land, sailed the seas, and fought the fights that he wrote about. His knowledge of place was amazing, as was his life. In fact, his autobiography is as fun to read as any of his Westerns.
- Wilbur Smith—I love his descriptions of Africa almost as much as he loves his continent.
- James Lee Burke—whether he is describing his beloved Louisiana, or his newer Montana environ, his setting descriptions are pure poetry. Almost no one describes things more eloquently.
- CJ Box—The writer describes his wonderful state of Wyoming better than anyone, and that’s because he truly loves where he lives.
- John D. MacDonald—His Travis McGee series was a major inspiration behind my Clyde Barr character, and I try to reread the series every year. With each reread, I notice more and more how well MacDonald described the Florida that he was worried was being destroyed by tourists and Industry. He was also a master of describing something brilliantly in one line or less. An important skill if you want to write fast-paced thrillers.
- Edward Abbey—One of my favorite writers, and it was his Desert Solitaire that showed me how to write about the desert that I know and love. I’ll never write with the same skill, but I believe we have the same devotion to the land we love.
- Jim Harrison—Another of my all-time favorite writers. The only one who can beat Burke when it comes to a poetic description, and the only one who can beat MacDonald with brevity. This is probably because Jim was a poet first, and a novelist second. I think we can all learn from this, and remember to include poetry in our reading.