December 4, 2015

Why Setting Matters More Than You Think

By C. Hope Clark

We’ve all moved at some point in our lives. When we went to college, when we married, when we changed jobs, when we retired . . . when we ran out of money or hit success. In our dreams we envision the perfect home. A kitchen we love to cook in, the most excellent back porch, a view of water, or a bedroom that envelops us in quaint security at night. Then there’s the town, state or country we prefer. Not all of us are happy where we are. Others, like me, have found a locale that nourishes our souls. Rip me out of here, or destroy what it represents to me, and I’m lost . . . or coming after you.

In our day-to-day existence, we yearn for that piece of geography that makes us whole, and when we don’t have it, we’re unsettled. So, imagine you’re in your perfect place . . . and it’s ruined. Or imagine you are in a strange location, and like Dorothy and Toto, you cry “There’s no place like home” and vow to find it come hell or damnation.

The power of setting ought to be as intense in stories as in our lives.

I’ve just released my fifth novel, Edisto Jinx, set on secluded Edisto Beach, South Carolina. It’s the second in The Edisto Island Mysteries. Readers love the coastal getaway that’s known for being laid back and poised on the end of the world, far removed from civilization. And they love how I’ve given those na├»ve residents some crazy murders to disturb that peace and quiet. Characters have escaped to Nirvana, only to find the devil vacations there, too.

I write mysteries, but when I begin a book, my first major decision is place, not crime. You overlook a major tool when you choose place and don’t make it dance the dance with the rest of the players. In the case of the Edisto series, the location nourishes people who’ve escaped the rest of the world to soak up the sun and surf and leave urbania to conjoin with nature. What better way to mess with characters than to ruin that? Place is as important a character as your protagonist, and we all know that if we don’t challenge our protagonist, there is no tale.

I recall my first release in my Carolina Slade series, Lowcountry Bribe, and the chase where a Slade seeks her missing children. She’s frantic, traveling country roads, searching ponds, ditches, barns, imagining the worst. The rural, rustic setting was horrendous enough – no city grids, but when my critique partner asked me why there wasn’t a hurricane off the coast, after all, this was the Carolinas, I smacked myself. Suddenly Slade fought wind, rain and dark, black clouds, in addition to an antagonist. Made all the difference in those chapters.

Where would Moby Dick be without the constant threat of the ocean? Gone With the Wind without Charleston or Atlanta?

The bestseller Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is based upon the character’s routine, in the city, riding a train. Then she’s rocked to her core by something horrible disturbing that oh-so-normal routine.

Debbie Macomber’s recent release, Silver Linings, centers her characters around Rose Harbor Inn in Cedar Grove. People who should never leave do, upsetting the balance, and then new people appear who don’t fit in. All around that charming little inn the reader becomes intimate with.

Setting dictates the flavor and voice of your story. Don’t underestimate it. As a matter of fact, give it free rein and let it have a serious hand in screwing up your characters’ lives.
C. Hope Clark is the author of five mysteries and a short recently published in Killer Nashville’s famous anthology Cold-Blooded, alongside Jeffrey Deaver, Steven James, and Donald Bain. She’s also published numerous nonfiction pieces in such publications as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents, and she speaks across the country at writing conferences and workshops. She’s known most for her origination of , a writing resource recognized by Writer’s Digest in its 101 Best Websites for Writers, for the last 15 years. You’ll find her at and

No comments:

Post a Comment