The Importance of Setting

When I started my project Masks, I just plopped it in the place where I live as a placeholder.  As it turns out, the location has grown on me, and I’m trying to bring in some of the familiar aspects of DC (except in summer, not winter.  Google is showing ice hanging off a tree.  Bad, bad, bad).  The scene I wrote (1,300 words) was set out near Pennsylvania Avenue while tour buses were disgorging tourists.

Setting often gets largely ignored in novels. It’s like the writers think that all they need to do is name a place, and then they never take advantage of what setting offers.  One novel I read was set in Washington, DC and dealt with a murder in the Supreme Court.  How much more Washington, DC could you get?  Um, as it turned out that was pretty much all the author did with the setting–name the city and mention the Supreme Court.  If she’d changed a few words, it could have been San Francisco for the California Supreme Court or Atlanta for the Georgia Supreme.    Setting became a convenience for the story, and it fell flat.

On the other hand, I read a book that was set in Morro Bay, California.  That’s in Central California, on the coast and is well-known for a volcanic plug called Morro Rock.  The author either did research or visited the town, because it most definitely had the flavor of the place.  Even if I hadn’t been there many times, I would have gotten it because she hit enough of the right details–the unusual ones that make the town unique.  And that’s where the details about setting come to life–the unusual.

For Masks, I did pick up a Foder’s.  Though the story will also move to a part of Virginia I haven’t been to, I don’t want to spend a lot of time at the moment doing tons of research.   I’ve found that when I do advance research, I often end up not using it, so it’s not a good use of the time.   The Foder’s allows me to hit the basics that I need to make the story happen as I’m writing it, and then I can fill in more details as needed.

Besides, did you know Virginia has a hot springs about three hours from DC?  Hmm.  Might need to research that in person come spring.