Good writers always take seriously the challenge of creating interesting, authentic settings. Previous contributors have offered good suggestions on this front, and my hope merely is to add yet another idea or two. In essence, I’d like to emphasize the value of plain, old-fashioned observation and thinking like a writer.
My friend Walt Harrington, who received multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations for his stunning in-depth personality profiles in the Washington Post, always carried a small, unobtrusive camera on assignment. Before and after his interviews he snapped general setting photos for later reference. His detailed descriptions of the setting were a trademark of his work. (I say were because, like many of us, Walt gave up life as a working journalist to become an academic.) His settings were real and specific to each subject, so accurate detail was important in portraying the people he wrote about.
In fiction writing, we have the freedom to create settings of our choice. But readers will pick up on phony settings pretty quickly. The more realistic and more interesting your setting, the more likely the characters who inhabit it will be believable and interesting to the reader. I’m not suggesting that you need to carry a camera and take setting photographs—although obviously it’s a good way to assure accuracy and pick up on small things you otherwise may miss. I am suggesting that you constantly think like a writer and take careful notes when you observe a setting of interest and, perhaps most important, remember settings you may want to use some day. When you are struck by a terrific setting, store it away in the back of your head. It will pop out sometime when you need it.
I’m using setting here to mean everything from the broad sweep to minor elements that add color and interest. Here is an example:
Probably the most commented on scene in my book, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, is that in which Bradley, finally having accepted the inevitability of Lizzie’s death, seeks solitude and takes refuge in the men’s room at a deserted park. Here, he notes but ignores ugly graffiti that normally would make him angry but reacts to a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal. He rescues the insect, sensing that he holds the power of life and death over it, all the while lamenting the fact that God holds that power over Lizzie and will not give her life.
That scene only works because of the fine detail of the setting. The fine detail of the setting comes straight from my own observations. I actually witnessed a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal decades ago, when I was in the eighth grade! I was so fascinated by the life and death struggle that I knew I’d one day use it in my writing. (Sorry to say, unlike Bradley, I did not rescue the cockroach.)
The graffiti—some of it quite ugly—also adds to the realism of the setting. Every scribble described is something I’ve seen over the years on the walls of men’s rooms, library carrels, and elsewhere on campus at the
There are plenty of other good examples. Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel, The Sun Singer, grew out of a visit to
Robert Hays, Author of Circles in the Water, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, and The