Sonia contemplates a particularly inspiring setting
Recently I participated in my first Twitter chat! One of the questions I barely had time to answer properly was "Any tips for setting in a historical novel?" (Thanks, Abigail!)
Well, I love to talk about setting, because all my stories start with place. As soon as I encounter an intriguing setting, I am eager to know more about its history. An exploration of this history often makes me wonder what sort of people might have inhabited that place and time. Then I wonder what conflicts the setting might create for a character. At this point a story begins to take shape in my imagination.
So, YES, I have tips! And they are very straightforward.
Tip #1: If at all possible, spend time in your setting. This is true for contemporary and historical fiction. For historicals in particular, be sure to visit historic buildings, museums, and historical societies. Living history sites are the best! Take photos and video footage (so easy with a phone these days), grab maps and brochures, and maybe even talk to the locals (especially if it’s recent history). Very often the physical experience of a place will spark all sorts of story ideas. On the other hand, actually being there might lead you to realize that a potential plot point is not realistic after all.
Tip #2: Know your setting so well that you could write a detailed pamphlet or give a tour. Along with visiting the setting, read nonfiction accounts of that place and time. Read other fiction with the same setting—I promise it won’t “pollute” your own story. If you can find diaries of people who lived in that place/time, you’ve struck gold. Take notes as you read—I find that handwritten notes stick in my brain much longer than typed ones. Pretty soon you’ll have quite a stack of information. However, keep in mind that 95% of that information, awesome as it is, won’t show up in the pages of your story. And none of it should show up in passive description. Instead . . .
Tip #3: Treat your setting like a character in the story, and show your protagonist interacting with it. For example, some ideal moments to describe your setting might be:
-- when your protagonist encounters it for the first time. It’s just like meeting another human character for the first time. Is this setting welcoming or hostile? Beautiful or depressing? Familiar or alien? We learn about a character by his or her reaction to a new location.
-- when your protagonist is in conflict with it. Does the character feel contained or smothered by the setting? Does it give her the heebie jeebies? Is your character battling the elements? Corralling cats or small children? A setting that creates conflict can be a source of horror or humor.
-- when it is teaching/inspiring/soothing your protagonist. (This is one of my favorites!) Is there a place that inspires or comforts your character—a place of escape? A place to dream or cogitate? What if that place is under threat somehow? What would your character do?
Above all, don’t just tell us how this setting affects your protagonist—show the character’s awe/alienation/inspiration/comfort through a scene. (See this blog post from Writer’s Digest for examples of showing vs. telling.)
PLEASE feel free to comment with more suggestions about setting in fiction!
This past weekend I accompanied Steve on his trip to NYC for the AALS conference. Once he was finished with sessions on Saturday, we took a long walk through Central Park and rewarded ourselves with afternoon tea in the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court. (We booked in a advance, of course.)
We loved the vibe in the Palm Court -- jazz music, lots of chatter and laughter with great people-watching opportunities. It was especially fun to watch the young ones enjoying their Eloise teas, which included pink lemonade, pb&j sandwiches, and cotton candy, along with more traditional tea fare. (See more about Eloise below.) Here's a more detailed review of the afternoon tea, from which I gather that the Palm Court used to have a more formal atmosphere. Steve and I rather liked the buzzing, upbeat feel to the place. I suppose some might find the music a bit loud, but we did not strain to hear each other.
The tea was perfectly steeped. I enjoyed the Big Ben English Breakfast (a blend of Assam and Yunnan), while Steve chose Thé des Amants, (black tea blended with apple, almond, cinnamon and vanilla). Both teas can be ordered from the Palais des Thés website.
The "New Yorker" tea tray is divine, don't you think? The warm scones are snuggled in the napkin on the lower rack.
Here is a closer look at the sandwiches, which were traditional and tasty, along with the sweets, which were extraordinary. There was no way we could finish it all, but the "leftovers" made for a perfect snack that evening.
And now for the book: The Absolutely Essential 60th Aniversary Edition of ELOISE.
I had a vague notion of who Eloise was, but prior to this tea had never read the book. Of course, I rectified this omission as soon as I got home! The 60th edition of Eloise is quite nice, and I appreciated the essay and scrapbook from Marie Brenner, which included a biographical account of author Kay Thompson and charming notes from illustrator Hilary Knight.
The book is clever and often endearing, but I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it as a child. If memory serves, I was more wrapped up in books about animals or pioneers. Eloise's life at the Plaza would have seemed very alien to me, and though I've always loved books about children with wild imaginations, I think her "trickster" tendencies might have stressed me out a little.
Fortunately, Marie Brenner's essay helped me better understand the appeal: "[Eloise] lived mother-free in a poor-little-rich-girl paradise without rules. As she raced from a mint raid in the Empire Room to spy from the Baroque ceiling of the Grand Ballroom, she lured us into an intoxicating urban fantasy. [...] Eloise was free to express the dark gleams of her inside. She could offer rubber candy to adults and let fly with her opinions. My daughter, Casey, on discovering Eloise when she was six, said of her reverentially: 'She is a bad girl!'"
Hi there! I'm the author of THE REVENANT (2011), THE DARK BETWEEN (2013), and GHOSTLIGHT (2015), all from Alfred A. Knopf. I blog a little about writing, but more often about reading, travel, TV and movies. Nothing too serious. Check the links below for more places to find me on the web, or click the banner to return to my website.