Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Writers' Wednesday: Using Setting to Enhance Your Story

For today's Writer Wednesday, Pink Heart Society contributor Barbara Wallace and a few of her Harlequin friends discuss setting and how they use it in their novels.

Setting is more than where your story takes place.  If done correction, setting works with your story to create a mood and move your love story forward.

Too often, however, I've read manuscripts where the author steps away from the action to describe the setting in minute detail as though they were creating a real estate listing.  For example:  The giant hotel room was luxurious in every way.  There was a king-sized bed with satin sheets, a huge high def tv hanging on the wall and a marble shower built for two. 

No judgement here, by the way.  I've done the exact same thing.  But while the above gets the job done, wouldn't you agree - as a reader - that it's much more interesting to read a description like the following:

There turned out to be the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries, a smaller museum a block away from the Louvre. Piper gasped as she stepped through the vestibule. The room she entered was all white, with soft light that turned the color smooth as cream. A beautiful canvas of a room created specifically for one purpose. To display the panels that covered its walls.

“Monet’s Nymphéas,” Frederic said. “As it was meant to be displayed.”

The water lilies. Piper stepped toward the center of the room. A sea of color surrounded her. Blues, greens, purples. She was swimming in them.

Excerpt From: Barbara Wallace. “Beauty & Her Billionaire Boss”  

Do you need to know, for example, that there are benches in the middle of the room, or that there is a second door leading to another gallery?  No.  What's important is the image of standing in the center of a small room surrounded by Monet's famed Water Lilies.

In other words, in setting the mood, you don't need every little detail. Instead, approach description with broad brushstrokes.

"I like to focus on things like lighting, time of day, etc.," says Liz Fielding, author of Vettori's Damsel in Distress. "Just one or two things to give a sense of setting, style, so that the reader can fill in the gaps with her imagination."

Donna Alward, author of the acclaimed Jewell Cove series believes your setting should be described through the character's eyes. "The language I use to describe my settings usually comes from my characters’ state of mind and mood," she says.  Thus a cynical character is going to hone in on very different details than a happy-go-lucky character or a character in mourning.  "I think by painting pictures with not only description but emotion, it imprints on the reader’s mind in a very indelible way."

KISS author Nina Harrington links character and setting as well, although she goes one step further.  While Donna lets her character's personalities drive the description, Nina flips the formula upside down.  She uses the setting as a way of revealing her character's traits. She does this by linking setting characteristics to specific emotional responses, such as goats in the road Paxos creating anxiety for her heroine in My Greek Island Fling. These same setting characteristics often repeat later in the story with a different reaction as a way of illustrating the character's change or growth.

As for me, I like to think of setting as a separate character.  Be it a fancy hotel, a rooftop on the Fourth of July or a ruined English abbey, the setting plays a role in the way the hero and heroine interact.  At different points during  Beauty & Her Billionaire Boss, for instance, Paris and it's iconic Eiffel Tower is used to  the stage for a variety of emotions, including regret, loneliness and falling in love:

  • A few blocks away, the Eiffel Tower loomed tall, reminding her she really had no right complaining. She might be lonely, but she was a lonely person living in luxury.

  • Ahead, the Eiffel Tower blinked in all its lit-up glory. Frederic couldn’t help but stop. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.
        “Yeah, it is,” she said, craning her neck to get a better view. “No matter how cranky I 
        get about life in Paris, I can never hate the tower.”

        Neither could he.

  • The Eiffel Tower greeted her as she stepped onto the sidewalk. Tall and gray, it would forever be her symbol of Paris. A reminder of both the best and worst of her time in this city. Taking out her cell phone, she took one last picture.

So you see, setting is a lot of more than a description of a picture you found on Pinterest.  It's a vital part of your story.

What are your thoughts about setting - both as a reader and as a writer?
 Do you have a favorite setting?
Tell us in the comment section!

In case you haven't guessed, Barbara’s next release is Beauty and her Billionaire Boss - Piper's story from her In Love With the Boss series.  The book goes on sale September 1.  However, you can pre-order your copy now through the links below.

Paris might be the city of love, but it makes trainee chef Piper Rush feel lonely! It's only the tentative bond she forges with her boss, brooding billionaire Frederic Lafontaine, that gives her the sense of belonging she's always craved… 

Gradually losing his sight, Frederic keeps everyone at arm's length. But as Piper brings laughter and light back into his heart, she also opens his eyes to what life could be like…together. Can Piper convince Frederic that she is the missing ingredient to his happily-ever-after?

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  1. Good stuff...and I love your descriptions! Paris is more to be felt or experienced than just looked at. :)

    susan meier

  2. Thank you ladies! Susan - how do you handle setting? You've done some exotic locales yourself.

  3. Wonderful! And can't wait to read your story, Barb.

  4. The scent of a place always draws me in, Barbara. In Vettori, when Geli walks into the Cafe Rosa out of the snow, I wanted the reader to smell the espresso!