Where Am I? The Importance of Setting to Your Romance Novel

Copyright © 2000 Julie Elizabeth Leto

A lush tropical island. A dark, candlelit restaurant by the ocean. A remote cabin in the foggy mountain tops. With little imagination, romantic fantasies bubble out of set-tings such as these. What better place could possibly exist to set your romance novel?

Plenty of better places-trust me. Those listed above are easy and no one ever said that writing well was easy. These settings aren’t off limits, but they need work. Your job as a writer is to create settings that will not depend entirely on images and emotional re-sponses the reader already possesses, but those that will take her lit-erally to a whole new world.

Do I mean science fiction? Not necessarily. The convenience store at the corner of Main Street and First Avenue can become a whole new world in the hands of a skilled writer. But before you start weaving a wonderful world of Moon Pies and Slurpees, there are quite a few questions about setting you must an-swer, at least in your mind, before you begin.

Once you’ve established setting, you will have answered a vital ques-tion for your reader-and the answer will allow her to settle comfortably into the scene she’s about to read with a solid framework for the mental picture she’s about to form once the characters appear.

Think about it. Anyone who wakes up suddenly in a new place usually has only one question that must be answered first: where am I?

Step One: Choosing the Setting

How many of us when on vacation or just going to a new place for the first time look around with our writer’s eyes and say, “this would be the perfect place for my heroine and hero to…” or “this would be the perfect place for that story I wanted to write about…”? So, we take a few pictures, jot down a few notes, and when we get back to the pad and pencil or the computer, we start writing. This enthusiasm is admirable, but setting should not be considered so lightly. Just because you enjoyed yourself somewhere, or because you experienced a romantic encounter (or imagined yourself having one) in a certain place doesn’t make it automatically a perfect place for your book. As I said before, that’s too easy.

In simple terms, setting is the time and place of a story. Setting is different from atmosphere or mood, which is the emotional response a reader has because of the time and place of the story. Setting is Civil War Atlanta in Gone With The Wind. Atmosphere and mood in that same book is the wealth and lavishness before the war, and the utter desperation after it. Margaret Mitchell changed the description of the same setting, Tara, to provide the atmosphere. Before the war, Tara is rich and proud. After, it is still proud, but burned out and dying.

But, for the purposes of this article, setting and atmosphere must be considered nearly the same thing, since one is dependent on the other. To have setting without mood and atmosphere means a lack of emotional connection-a major no-no in romance. To have only mood and atmosphere and no concrete place invites confusion in the reader. This confusion may keep your reader from achieving the comfort-level she needs to truly enjoy your story.

Setting, according to William Noble, the author of Make That Scene: A Writer’s Guide to Setting, Mood and Atmosphere, provides three crucial contributions to your story:

    (1) It adds vividness to your story
    (2) It influences character
    (3) It plays a vital role in the story

If a setting you’ve chosen doesn’t interlock this tightly with the story you’re about to tell-if it’s just a backdrop as changeable as stage scenery-you may not have chosen the right place for your story to occur. You must give setting the consideration and forethought it deserves, or you risk losing an element of your story that could make the difference between an editor’s yes or no-or a reader’s enjoy-ment or rejection of your work.

Because of its basic simplicity, setting is one of the most under-rated tools you can utilize in creating a fresh, original twist on an old idea (and we all know that there are no new ideas, only old ideas freshly done). Think about it. West Side Story is essentially Romeo and Juliet set in a different time and place. Fourteenth century Verona becomes 1960s New York City. The circumstances and plot remain the same, but the audience doesn’t seem to mind. The changed set-ting meant changed characters, and together they flushed out fresh elements to the basic plot of forbidden, star-crossed love.

To further explore the importance of this element to your writing, we should turn to a master. Though rarely considered an influ-ence to romance writers, we shouldn’t ignore EdgarAllan Poe’s con-tributions to literature-particularly in the area of setting and mood.

The Single Effect

Contrary to popular myth, Poe was not a drugged-out weirdo who wrote gross stories about blood and gore. On the contrary, he was a master craftsman whose attention to detail in his tightly woven narratives contradicts any possibility of a steady use of hallucino-gens. In his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection of stories called the Twice Told Tales, Poe gave his opinion on the importance on certain elements in a story. This portion of the review, now called his “Theory of the Short Story” earned him the moniker “the Father” of the short story. Since popular novels of our time resemble the short tales of the nineteenth century closely in terms of pacing and enter-tainment value, there is wisdom in Poe’s ideas. He wrote:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having con-ceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents-he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentences tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction…

In our novels, the preconceived or single effect is romance, coupled with the overall mood of the book (i.e., suspense, a historic richness, or humor). Genre and sub-genre-your targeted market-must be taken into consideration when you plan your overall effect. Poe contended that you must determine what this overall effect will be before you start any plotting, characterization, or writing because every word you write should ultimately lead you to this effect. In fact, all of the plotting, characterization, setting, point of view, etc… must all be tied so closely together that they will, in combination, lead to the single overall effect.

Now, of course, Poe spoke of a single effect in terms of a short story that could be read in a time span of thirty minutes to two hours, tops. In the novel, therefore, we may have more than one effect, though one may be stronger in relation to the type of book you’ve written. The trick is to make sure the two effects are blended so thoroughly that the reader hardly notices any marked difference be-tween the two. When you haven’t done this, the response from your editor might be “this book has a great plot, but the romance is lack-ing,” or vice-versa.

Single effect, therefore, should be taken into consideration when you decide where and when you will put your characters for them to live out your story. Setting in a novel, as opposed to a short story, can move to more than one primary locale. Single effect, therefore, gives you the focus to ensure that each and every location contributes to the total story.

Setting and Genre

Before you choose the individual settings for each chapter and scene, you must determine the overall setting or atmosphere for your book. To do this, you must consider the genre (or in the case of romance, the sub-genre) you intend to write for. If you’re going to write a romantic suspense with a heavy dose of danger, or a light-hearted contemporary with loads of laughter, you have two choices. Should the setting enhance the single effect of fear and danger, or should it contrast it?

Enhancing the Single Effect Through Setting

This is perhaps the easier of the two choices because it carries with it a certain degree of built-in visual images for your reader. A romantic suspense might be set on a foggy London wharf or in a run down, abandoned bungalow on the edge of a small town. A histori-cal might take place primarily in the midst of the Battle of Concord, or in Paris during the Revolution with a guillotine looming outside. A romance with a more humorous intent might take place in a small town peopled with quirky characters who take pride in painting their houses in neon colors. In other words, the setting you choose highlights the moods, characters, and plots you have created.

Contrasting the Single Effect Through Setting

When a jeweler shows you a diamond, he doesn’t place the gem on a glittering background, but on a swatch of black velvet so that the sparkle and light of the diamond contrast with the darkness of the cloth to make the diamond seem even brighter. This is the power of contrast, and though it is a more difficult concept to describe your reader, it can be quite potent when utilized through setting. For example, set your romantic suspense in a crowded mall in the middle of the day. Put your Regency in a cathouse, or your lighthearted romance in a spooky castle. Not only does this break the cliché in some instances, it lends itself to creativity and may provide that ele-ment that makes your book just a smidgen enough different to catch the eye of the editor.

It is important to note that you can combine these two techniques, enhancing and contrasting, depending on what you are specifically trying to accomplish in a given scene. But do so with care. Confus-ing the reader, or worse, teaching them to always expect the unex-pected can ruin your good intentions and destroy the mood you’re trying so hard to create.

Step Two: Describing the Setting

To most of us, there is only one way to establish setting-through description by the author. Most like a camera, this technique cap-tures the visual and sensory images that accompany the place, while having the ability to focus in on what in the scene is important. Con-sider the following example, where the physical description contrasts the mood of the character:

Hope Langston sat on the crest of the small hill and stared out at the shimmering blue Minnesota lake while almost silent waves lapped the shore of Teardrop Island. Peaceful, partially forested terrain surrounded her. She should have been relaxed and content, absorbing the barely tamed wilderness. Instead her whole body had become rigid, the small hairs at the base of her slim neck bristling like starched car fur. Someone was watching her again. She knew it. She could feel it.-The Ivory Key by Rita Clay Estrada (Harlequin Temptation #166)

If you look carefully, the description is limited to the first two sentences. The rest deals with the contrast between the tranquillity of the setting and the anxiety of the main character. Most of us have visited a place like the one above. Could more have been said? Of course. The question is should more have been said. The key to describing setting is details. We tend to believe that the more details we include, the more powerful the image will be.

Details, Details…

That makes sense, right? Theoretically, but not practically. When we describe every aspect of that porcelain spittoon we marveled over at the mansion we visited on our vacation, or we go into paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the actions of the hot dog vendor in Times Square, we may be establishing setting at the expense of the single effect.

So it all comes down to details. Just how many details do you use? According to William Noble in his book Make That Scene: A Writer’s Guide to Setting, Mood, and Atmosphere, you should con-sider three things when describing setting: (1) colors, (2) shapes, (3) textures.

He gives the following example from Ray Bradbury’s The Mar-tian Chronicles:

It was quiet in the deep morning of Mars, as quiet as a cool black well, with stars shining in the canal waters, and, breathing in every room, the children curled with their spiders in closed hands…

There is not a great amount of detail here. Noble contends that this description captures our interest because this is a setting that, though on a foreign planet, becomes easily familiar. “He mentions colors (black), shapes, (waters, canal, curled) and textures (quiet, cool, shining), and this gives us a well-defined flavor of where the story takes place and how matters will proceed. Just a few well-placed details so we feel comfortable with the story” (Noble 36).

The problem arises then in choosing which details are needed. Not so easy? Then it must be just what the reader or-dered! If we have visited the place we are describing, this may be a simpler task. What details best summed up your personal experi-ence when you were there? Or, taking into consideration your char-acter and her situation, what details would most appeal to her? If you haven’t visited, the job becomes more difficult, but not impos-sible, as countless historical writers have proved when they describe places that no longer exist. With a bit of imagination, and the back of the mind still focused on the single effect of the scene, or the overall book, you can focus in on the necessary details.

According to Noble, the most effective approach to choosing details is “to imagine ourselves in the scene: it is we who do the looking and the absorbing, and we know what will strike us most forcefully. We seek ‘key details’ with this method, ever mindful that use of detail can overrun us if we aren’t careful.”

Just one or two telling details, chosen from the myriad of shapes, colors, and textures may be just enough to give the reader a taste of the flavor of this scene. And remember, must of us don’t enjoy over-eating. Think of these details like bites in a gourmet meal. Without breaks for a sip of wine or time for engaging conversation, it’s just plain old fattening food. Count those calories and don’t give all the details at once. Let your reader chew each morsel during the action and conversation you’ve blended into a sumptuous feast of words, images, and action.

Stephen King, in his brilliant book, On Writing, attacks the topic of details on pages 173 through 180. He starts with a similar premise as above, then goes further. There’s no room for me to put it all in here (you really need the example and his narrative to get the whole picture), but find a copy and read it.

My favorite line has to do with revising out details if the place you’ve described ends up not being an important setting in the story, perhaps that “convenience store” I wrote about earlier. If only one scene happens there and this scene adds nothing particularly riveting to plot or character development, you might want to cut the description down to the bare minimum…allowing the reader to get in, get what they need and get out with maximum speed. But what if the description is brilliant? King writes, “Certainly I couldn’t keep it on the grounds that it’s good; it should be good, if I’m being paid to do it. What I’m not being paid to do is be self-indulgent.” Boy, I wish someone had said that to me when I first started! I might have gotten paid for my work much sooner…

Description by the author is not the only way to establish setting, though it is the most used. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing. Think of it this way-in your book, your characters will travel to several different places. Every time they arrive, you have a paragraph detailing the terrain, the weather, the landscape, the time of day, the clothes of the locals, or whatever telling details appeal to you. However, even if you are one of those writers who has extreme talent with description and can create the most vivid of visual pictures with rich and power-ful language, the sheer repetition of your descriptive technique can bog down a wonderful story. So, consider some alternatives:

A Piece of the Action

In the example from Rita Clay Estrada’s The Ivory Key, the de-scription leads the reader to believe action is about to happen. An-other way to work in description of setting is to do it while the action is already occurring. Keep in mind that hints at the setting must be established earlier, so the reader feels comfortable enough to get past where am I? and into your story.

Note the beginning of the popular Harlequin Superromance #342, Jo by Tracy Hughes:

The anger in Jo Calloway’s voice was like afire billowing across the crowded auditorium. Contagious fire, productive fire, unresolved fire…. This is a description of Jo’s voice, which is then followed by a physical description of her. But, Hughes has hinted at where Jo is-a crowded auditorium where she is speaking. In the first sen-tence of the next paragraph, Hughes wrote: Inconspicuous among the captive audience, he watched her with an awe that was foreign to him. Now, we know where the hero is. Later when Hughes writes, She hadn’t noticed him yet, sitting among the “enlightened” as if he embraced their cause.., we know a bit more. She’s giving a speech to people who already agree with her, though he doesn’t. Not only has the writer established the initial setting of this particular scene (the entire book takes place in the fictional town of Calloway Cor-ners that isn’t described until much later in the first chapter), but she’s used the setting to establish conflict through the action of the speech.

In Their Element

Another alternative to straight descriptive writing is to combine description of place with characterization. The example from Jo, while amid action, also provides a hint at characterization. Jo is a fiery speaker embracing some cause the hero, whose name is EZ, disagrees with. The following, from my August, 2001 Blaze, Exposed, combines action, character, and setting as well.

“Hey, sweet thing. Wanna lift?”

Ariana Karas swung her pack securely over her shoulder, ducking her head so the tube of architectural plans shoved inside didn’t knock off her lucky hat. She secured the Greek fisherman’s cap by pressing the brim firmly over her bangs and stepped onto the Powell-Hyde cable car for her ride back to the restaurant. She flashed a weary grin at Benny, the sixty-something brakeman who flirted with her on a nightly basis, just enough to make her smile, even tonight.

There is only one setting detail in this passage—the cable car, specifically, the Powell-Hyde car, complete with a old-timer brakeman. The setting is of course, San Francisco. Knowing that this book, the first in Blaze’s Sexy City Nights miniseries, would take place in this particular city made a huge difference in how I constructed the character and plot. Anything goes in San Francisco, what better place for a wild seduction? My heroine is also serious about her business, which is another trait admired in a city where per capita wealth is off the scale. The paragraph itself hints at character and plot—she’s carrying architectural plans. She also isn’t offended by the brakeman’s flirting and she wears a rather unusual lucky hat. These things speak volumes—and it’s all in the details that go back to the setting.

What did you say?

The final alternative to straight description is establishing setting through dialogue. This does not mean that you just put descriptive passages in a character’s mouth! If you do this, you are still just using a descriptive passage that happens to have quotation marks around it. The technique is overused and sometimes intrusive in the narrative flow of the story. Description through dialogue is perhaps the most subtle technique of all, and can only be used in certain situ-ations.

In the book How to Write Short Stories, Sharon Sorenson pre-sents a model short story entitled, “The Mosquito” by David Ceipley. In it, several young boys are on a campout and are about to start up a game of Truth or Dare. All the reader knows up to this point is that the boys are in a tent with a flashlight hanging up for light. Consider the following dialogue:

“Why me first?” “Cause you’re the youngest. Truth or Dare?”
“I don’t wanna play.”

“You gotta play, or we’ll send you back to the house.”

In these few lines, the reader learns something they didn’t know before-the canipout is in the backyard and not in a campground or in a remote forest. Until this point, the writer did not have the oppor-tunity, or the need, to give us this information. Now, the story is moving in a direction where the reader needs to know that any dan-ger the boys might face is purely in their own imagination-hence, the safety of a backyard. This is worked in so subtly, we hardly notice when it is introduced and we are not forced to contemplate the possible significance until we reach the end of the tale.

Hint, Hint…

This final example provided an important aspect of establishing setting. You must do it, most of the time, without announcing to the reader what you are doing. Unfortunately for us, the art of writing demands craftiness. Again, short stories are a great way to learn how to pick and choose only what is crucial for physical description, be-cause their length demands such choices. In the case of the romance novel, our desire for quick pacing calls for similar choices.

Sorenson writes, “If the setting plays a key role in the plot, you must give vivid details, always being careful to establish the right atmosphere for the characters and plot. More often, however, a short story writer does not devote descriptive paragraphs to clarifying the setting. Rather, readers learn about setting by inference, through hints” (29)

The Final Word

Creating a setting for your book is important, and it isn’t as easy as it looks. There are many aspects of setting that aren’t even hinted at in this article. Do your research-primarily by picking up Will-iam Noble’s book, which is the most comprehensive study of this topic that I’ve found.

And finally, marvel in your power as a writer. You have the abil-ity to do something television and film, the primary media for most of our readers, cannot. You can produce a visual picture with only words at your disposal. You can bring ancient civilizations back to life, or create entirely unknown worlds without a massive budget or special effects. You can make familiar places seem new again through your characters, conflicts, and plot. Never take the importance of setting for granted. I can think of no other question that is as important as “Where am I?”