Writing Tips: Setting the Scene
Updated: Sep 10
In this blog series, we’ve talked about points of view, interviewing one’s characters, how clothes reveal personality, and venturing into other realms. But knowing where your characters are in space and time, and communicating that to readers, is just as important as knowing who those lead characters are. As C. P. Lesley notes in this month’s writing tip, place and time are vitally important, influencing not only the decisions characters make but the options available to them. Yet these background elements must be revealed in subtle ways, appealing to all the senses yet giving free rein to the central personalities and the conflicts between them.
Where in the World?
C. P. Lesley
True confession: I’ve never been much into video games. I’m the wrong generation, for starters, and I spend so much time on my computer working and writing that the thought of spending more hours in games, however entertaining, just doesn’t appeal. But I did, back in the day, love Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and its historical spinoff, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? I feel the same thrill when I start a new novel. As soon as I’ve decided who my hero and heroine are, what they want over the course of the story, and what stops them from just reaching out and grabbing it, I start considering where they are.
As a reader, too, I search for novels that clearly but unobtrusively establish a firm sense of time and space. Probably I’m more than a little obsessive, but I hate not knowing what year it is or whether I’m diving into an adventure set in England or Wales, Kentucky or Kansas. The place can be fictional—and often is—but “somewhere in Europe” just doesn’t cut it for me.
One author who does this beautifully is Andrea Penrose. Here is the third paragraph from last year’s Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens (the title is also a tell regarding place, as are all the titles in this mystery series set during England’s early nineteenth-century Regency).
Moonlight flickered through the soaring glass-paned walls of the magnificent conservatory, its silvery softness twining with the gold-hued glow of the lanterns hung among the exotic greenery. The faint sounds of a string quartet—was it Mozart or Haydn?—floated out from the assembly room attached to the rambling structure, the lilting notes punctuated by discreet laughter and the crystalline click of champagne glasses.
Note how Penrose uses the details to establish where her opener takes place (a magnificent conservatory) while also hinting at a cultured atmosphere (the string quartet) and setting the mood (a party atmosphere, accompanied by champagne, which is both elite and expensive). In the next paragraph she gets more specific, identifying the event as an international symposium and the location as London’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Everyone is celebrating, heightening the shock when one guest is discovered dead amid the potted plants.
Here is another example, in this case from my latest novel, Song of the Storyteller, due out next week.
In fact, on that long-ago morning—the fourteenth of December, a Tuesday—my immediate goal was to resist the demands of my older sister, Maria, that I help Tanya, our housekeeper, supervise the maids as they tackled the weekly wash. We were ensconced in the room where Maria loved to sew (and tormented me with exercises in needlework that led only to tangled threads, malformed stitches, and bouts of bad temper), and we sat on one of the heated, padded benches that edged each of the four tiled walls. Brilliant light flooded the room from above, colored insets in the glass casting jewel-like shadows on the richly patterned carpets that lined the floor. Nevertheless, so close to the shortest day chilly drafts slipped like bandits past the edges of the panes. I appreciated the warmth beneath me.
Not so lyrical as Penrose’s description, admittedly, but this narrator is trying to re-create the perspective of her sixteen-year-old self. Here the chapter actually begins with a line that states explicitly where and when the action is taking place: Moscow, 1546—except, of course, that most of my readers have no idea what the Russian capital city looked like in 1546. The tag line supplies information, sure, but the main information it conveys is “we’re somewhere unfamiliar, a long time ago.” Hence the details that set the scene are every bit as crucial, if not more so.
And what are those details? The heroine, Lyuba, lives in a richly decorated house with, somewhat surprisingly, central heating. The carpets, tiled walls, and jewel-toned glass identify her as the daughter of a wealthy family, as does the mention of servants whom Lyuba is expected to manage. They also make the date more specific: the fourteenth of December, a Tuesday. That shows Lyuba, our storyteller, to be the kind of person who pays attention to the calendar, even as the chilly drafts slipping past like bandits hint at her playful side.
These details don’t exist in a vacuum: they also point to a source of conflict between the sisters. Maria thinks in terms of embroidery and household management, while Lyuba revels in the sounds and meanings of words. The room sets the stage, but the description serves the action and the characters, not the reverse.
The same is true for Penrose’s novel: in the text surrounding the paragraph quoted above, we meet her victim, Josiah Becton, and learn something of his background, how he feels about this party, what he would rather be doing, and even hints of secrets he might conceal, although discovering which of those potential motives actually lead to murder will take most of the novel.
In these ways, identifying place and time draws readers into your story world. But place and time also define what people can do. To give an extreme example, the options available to a lower-class working man and a titled lord—or to men and women or people of different races—have been vastly different in most times and places, but the differences themselves vary. Putting some effort in defining a specific time and place, then researching which options would have constrained or facilitated your characters’ goals can open up plot possibilities you might not have considered.
Here is another example, this time from my Legends of the Five Directions series. At the end of the first novel, The Golden Lynx, I had to decide what to do with my main antagonists. The master mind I definitely wanted to keep around, but his chief henchman? By the standards of the day (1534), he should have been executed for his crimes, but I thought I might need him in a future book, so I took advantage of another custom of this time and place and had him exiled to a monastery in what is now northern Finland.
At the time, I picked the place because it was in a really remote location and had been founded just a year before the action began. The monastery still exists, although not in quite the same place, and when I reached a point in the series when it made sense to use that character again, I researched the place and discovered an amazing story: the abbot of that monastery, according to his saint’s life, had once headed a group of ferocious bandits and had run away with a nobleman’s daughter, then killed her in a fit of jealous rage. Only then, in a fit of remorse, did he find religion and roam the same forests where he had murdered and robbed, now as a hermit. Eventually, he found refuge at Solovki, one of medieval Russia’s most famous monastic communities, which he eventually left to found his own hermitage in an even more inaccessible place.
Such a story is completely inconceivable now, although one could have a lot of fun constructing a modern equivalent with techno-barons and James-Bond-villain-style fortresses. But for my antagonist a reverse journey, from monk to bandit king, was entirely in character, and the northern forests made the perfect setting for him to complicate my heroine’s life in ways she could neither imagine nor predict.
Even something as simple as weather can set a scene or advance a plot or challenge a character’s ability to cope. But we’ll tackle that question in another post. Meanwhile, think about where your story is set—and when—then mine that setting for all it’s worth. Just remember, in the end readers want to approach that world through what your characters see and hear and feel, so they can immerse themselves in their experience. Place and time are essential scenery, but they shouldn’t take center stage.
Images: World and filmstrips purchased via subscription from Clipart.com; Pechenga monastery © Igor Yagupov via Fotopedia.