On Writing: the importance of setting

Once a week, on a Wednesday, I appear on a community radio show, ‘CakEhole with Julie Mullen,’ and we talk about all things to do with novels and writing for fifteen minutes. It is one of the highlights of my week as Julie is so much fun to chat with. Based on our conversations, I thought I’d blog a little about the craft of writing.

I’ve belonged to several writing groups over the years and for me, it’s important to be part of a collaborative group that shares both the process and the end product of writing. During the MA, I realised how much better a writer I might become by working with other skilful, creative people. At that time, five years ago, I was lucky enough to know a group of writers that included performance poets and artists. I made great friends and was truly inspired at the same time. 

Then I moved house and sought out a new group to share ideas with. I fell on my feet when I discovered a local group, all keen, talented, and super-supportive. They write in a variety of styles and genres, which gives me much to think about and learn. They astound me every time I hear their work, helping me to consider the impact of my own writing and to constantly strive to make progress. At the moment we can’t meet regularly, but we post our writing on a Facebook page to each other once a month.

Recently I joined a Zoom writing group and that has been a really useful opportunity. Led by an experienced author, we share our work each week and we encourage each other to develop and learn. At the moment, we are discussing the importance of how writers use setting in novels and I’ve enjoyed listening to the many viewpoints. A book of our shared work will be published imminently.

One person in the group said she loved stories about locations she knew well: she found it satisfying to read about a familiar place, one that she’d visited herself. Someone else suggested that a completely new setting might be more interesting, dicovering a different place, a fresh experience. Then people considered fantasy settings, exotic settings and, of course, in this lockdown time, places where we dreamed of being.

Our discussion moved to how a setting can tell us something about the inhabitant, and we attempted the fun exercise of creating any setting we wished, then we would choose someone else’s location and create the character who might exist there. It was really interesting to read everyone’s ideas.

I selected another writer’s choice of a garden, where a hungry visitor had come to forage. It was, probably intended to be the home of an animal such as a fox or hedgehog, so I created a completely different character who was standing at the edge of this grassland, looking for food to feed her or his young.

Here is my response to the above stimulus:

He tugged the blanket around his shoulders as a blast of icy wind sliced through the thin fabric. The woollen hat warmed his scalp but his eyes watered and he still shivered. His skin was leathery now; the days in the camps, the exposure to wind and rain, then harsh sunlight, had made him tougher, leaner, and deprivation had brought a strange gleam to his eyes.

At least there was grass here in the garden. Back at the camp, it was just mud, tents and heaped rubble, little to eat, meagre shelter from the rain. Mahmoud and Amira needed food, they cried during the night and here, at the edge of a farm, there might be pickings. He was desperate; the raw, aching hunger in his belly was constant now.

He gazed down at his legs, thin as poles in torn jeans and, as he passed a hand across the roughness of his face, he recalled that back in Damascus he had filled his clothes well: he had taken pride in his trimmed beard and glossy hair. Even without a mirror, he knew that the itchy bristles beneath the hat held dirt, his cheekbones were sharp: a front tooth was missing: he rarely smiled now. But, even worse, pride, dignity had slunk from his shoulders, and a hunched man begging for food stood in his place at the edge of a desolate farm in Calais. Farid held himself stiffly against the cutting wind with no idea of what he would do next.

The reason I love working with this writing group so much is that we can examine the importance of elements of writing, like setting. We considered how much location influences us as writers, then we considered the impact of what we’d written on readers. We honed our own skills, shared our work and developed understanding of how setting can influence the readers’ experience or enjoyment of a novel.

A strong setting can transport a reader to a place where new and exciting experiences may readily happen: a setting may inspire dread or delight. Creating an interesting and appropriate location is part of a writer’s toolbox, to fire the reader’s imagination. In my latest novel, Chasing the Sun, setting is all-important: in these times where travel abroad is limited, a story where the central character has adventures in Spain and Mexico can transport readers to a sun-soaked destination where the sights, the food and the culture are absorbing.

As a writer, it’s really good fun to try and evoke different places, then the next step is to consider the characters who might inhabit them……

5 thoughts on “On Writing: the importance of setting

  1. One of the joys of reading is to experience the unfamiliar through the eyes of a stranger, a vicarious journey where the culture and language is dangled before you from confident hands. Reading is not so much about escaping from, it is more about delving into, and what fun it is to make those discoveries from a good book!

    Liked by 1 person

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