That's the title of a panel I moderated at the Sisters in Crime Orange County Ladies of Intrigue event in Huntington Beach on March 29th. Here are the panel members, striking a mysterious pose:
|Patricia Wynn, Jeri Westerson, Naomi Hirahara, Jan Burke and moi|
The importance of setting in a novel is a topic about which I feel passionate. For me, setting is more complex than it seems on the surface. Setting, in general and in each scene, establishes tone and reveals character. Think of the bleak landscape of Scandinavian crime novels and how that shapes a character’s personality and behavior.
A broader term often used to describe the complexity of setting is landscape, which includes clouds, climate, culture and history. Let's say a horrific crime has happened in the small town in which your story is set and that event has changed the culture and the way each character views the world. That event not only is an essential element of landscape but it also becomes an important component of plot.
As writers, our setting choices should create mood, suspense, stimulate the reader's senses or act as a metaphor in support of the theme. We don’t want to bore the reader with excess words that interrupt the story, so it's important to boil setting elements into a fine sauce, with an economy of words. Recently, I read two examples of this sort of writing by reporters for the Los Angeles Times. Here is Richard Fausset musing about a village in Argentina in a piece about Pope Francis. In a few words he creates a vivid and memorable snapshot of that place:
“…a jumble of slapdash concrete shanties, limping dogs, and hard-eyed men on dusty corners.”
In an article about unrest in Port Said, Egypt, Jeffrey Fleishman writes:
“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers. But its fading splendor…”
Consider his vivid word choice and the onomatopoeia of the word “slap” of fishing nets. In two-plus sentences, he tells the reader volumes about this town.
Another of my favorite setting passages is from Raymond Chandler’s novel, The High Window. His description of Bunker Hill reads like a Carl Sandburg poem.
“Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows and spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glassy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.”
I've read this passage from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier many times and it never fails to send a shill down my spine. It occurs in the beginning pages of the novel shortly after its memorable opening sentence: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The words drip with menace and foreboding. The description foreshadows the evil to come.
"The drive was a ribbon now, a thread of its former self, with gravel surface gone, and choked with grass and moss. The trees had thrown out low branches, making an impediment to progress; the gnarled roots looked like skeleton claws. Scattered here and again amongst this jungle growth I would recognize shrubs that had been land-marks in our time, things of culture and of grace, hydrangeas whose blue heads had been famous. No hand had checked their progress, and they had gone native now, rearing to monster height without a bloom, black and ugly as the nameless parasites that grew beside them."
Inspired? Me, too. Now I’ll stagger back to my WIP to write a couple of pithy sentences about Marina del Rey. It’s no Manderley…or is it?