Friday, May 7, 2010

Settings R Us...Generic or Unique?

Settings are so important or their generic and of little importance, depending on the author's interest in making the setting another and interesting character in and of itself, or simple and quick and easy with little or no reason to be inserted into the storyline anymore than necessary.

I have read books wherein the setting is a generic city--any town USA, a rural setting that could be anywhere on the continent, and I have read books where the city or the town or the country dominates the story. What's the difference? Why make the setting "all important" to begin with?  Isn't that a lot of work, making the setting unique and special to your character?

I have a habit of going more John Grisham than Elmore Leonard, while I respect both methods; I have great admiration for those who can quick-sketch a scene and a setting and move on with story.  By the same token, I am compelled myself to make a scene come alive via the five senses and perceptions of my characters, be it Dr. Jessica Coran in Hawaii or Inspector Alastair Ransom in 1893 Chicago with the World's Fair a thorn in his side.  For me setting has to be another and important character in the story, one with which the main characters interact.  Sure a classroom is a classroom is a classroom and often it is best to move on, but the overall setting, say New Orleans must come alive in my tales.

As a reader, for me it can go either way; I respect the Elmore Leonard approach to making Arizona in 1844 come alive with a few quick brush strokes, but I also love the detail of a John Grisham describing a courtroom - a special courtroom to Grisham and his readers--an Oxford, Mississippi courtroom.  Leonard would just call it a courtroom while Grishan would spend three or four pages on the place.

What about you? Which do you prefer? The quick-sketch setting or the fat, juicy, larger than life setting?


Robert W. Walker
Children of Salem - 1st 20 pgs. free @ http://www.robertwalkerbooks.com/

7 comments:

P.A.Brown said...

I like the larger than life, making the location a character. It's what I try to do with L.A. in my stories. I like Elmore Leonard, but admire James Lee Burke more for the way he makes me feel his America. It takes more effort and has to be done well or it comes off like a travel brochure, but when done well, for me, it enhances the story.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I also feel that setting is important. It lends validity to the plot and makes it come alive. I'm currently researching details about the Salt River Indian Reservation, adjacent to Phoenix, via Map Quest satellite. I once lived in the Phoenix area but have forgotten a lot about the terrain. The satellite images have saved me a trip back to Arizona.

Rob said...

Look what EB White did for the inside of a barn in Charlotte's Web...he could have just said it was a barn....like any barn....but he proliferated it with detail that made it a special barn. And Jean, so cool that today we can do imaging like that for geographical details; could not do that at the time I was mapping out Hawaii.

cassandrajade said...

Usually I'm the quick sketch and then get on with the characters and plot - which I find more interesting. My most recent project is a bit more setting driven and I am having to work on building the setting without getting bogged down in dense exposition.

Thanks for an interesting post.

Rob Walker said...

Cassabdra - I work to make the dense setting more interesting by not dropping my character out of the paragraghs dealing with setting; that is I work to remember it is not my impressions or feeligns or comfort zone or discofort zone my character(s) is faced with but HIS or HERS. That keeps it flowing and I get the best of both - movement and action in and around description to keep it from going static on me.

rob

Annie said...

I like to have setting that is rich, detailed and completely fictional. I like making my own versions of the world, or new worlds altogether. My stories tend to be set in "France" or the "1940s" using specific details about the house, the school, the woods, but not the history or geography of the actual time and place. Interesting post on something I spend a lot of time thinking about!

Rob said...

I spend a lot of time on place and setting...the overall setting say Chicago and then each scene setting, an apartment, a grocery, a bar, a police station, a restuarant. I try to bring in at least three of the character's senses and if possible all five, and sometimes the sixth sense....In all setting is important and "size" matters in my humble opinion....