How To Properly Use Setting in a Novel

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© R Mitchell

Carrie De Simas

Editor in Chief @ GoneWithTheWord

Focus your character’s awareness of the setting through the sharp point-of-view (POV) of their emotional, psychological and social backgrounds. What they see and notice (aka what they/you as the author share with us) has to mean something. 

For example, a man I once dated took me to meet his best friend. While we were there, my boyfriend insisted I see the photos of his best friend’s wedding. Now, for some women this might seem an indicator of his future intentions in our relationship but the backstory of our courtship had already shown me otherwise (fine by me because marriage talk tended to give me the cold sweats too).

As he flipped through the photo album, he paused on the pictures of his best friend’s family. This detail imprinted on my memory. I didn’t know (at the time) why my inner camera had focused in on all of this, just that it was important. On some subconscious level, my mind filed this image away for later evaluation.

I didn’t have to wait long. A few months later, I discovered he was having an affair with his best friend’s sister and had already planned to move cities to be with her. I immediately remembered his attention on the photo album months earlier and saw it for what it was: a red flag. If this had been a novel, the reader would also remember the foreshadowing hints.

This is what an author needs to do with setting details. It is our job, as authors, to focus the POV character on the setting details that really matter.

Don’t tell me about the old hand-made quilt in the living room if it doesn’t matter emotionally, psychologically, or socially to the character who is looking at it. Do describe it when it is (or will be) important to the character or the story—even if the character doesn’t yet know of its importance.

Not so long ago, I stayed overnight at a friend’s and requested an extra blanket. She has a cute bungalow with a linen closet right outside the spare room. Yet she went down to the basement, into an old and splintered cedar chest and pulled out a thick knitted blanket for me to use. It was hand-knit, unlike the ones in her linen closet upstairs, and yet she kept it in the cold basement. When I said how lovely it was, she offered it to me as a gift. A strange gift for a houseguest.

Did all this mean something? You bet it did.

I later discovered that the blanket had been knit as a gift for her husband by an old girlfriend and he had kept it even after they had broken up despite hating to be overly warm and never having used it.

These are the kinds of details that should comprise the setting. They should be indicators of the character’s mood, history, mental state, social experiences, etc.—even if the understanding doesn’t come until later in the book.

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