By Natalie Walters, Author of Living Lies
If you’re a reader or writer, then you probably know the importance of setting. Where the story takes place can have a direct impact on the character’s journey. It can become the character’s enemy: Titanic, Deep Water Horizon, Twister. It can force the character to change: Sweet Home Alabama, Made in Manhattan. Or, it can become the character’s ally: Die Hard, the Nakatomi Plaze became John McClane’s ally as he wreaked havoc on the terrorists and Willy Wonka used the Chocolate Factory to help him find a child of noble character.
Settings have the power to become a character. And they should. When I began writing Living Lies, I didn’t really have a setting in mind until we moved to the coastal Georgia area near Savannah and I began to imagine how I could use my new surroundings as an antagonist.
In Living Lies, I have a character, Miguel Roa, who is a Vietnam veteran and lives among the dense Live Oaks along the river. Unstable after his return home from war, he becomes a recluse and has blackouts that force him to relive the terror of his past. Talking with my uncles (three of them served in Vietnam) and watching documentaries, it was easy to imagine how the swampy marshland, tucked deep beneath the gnarly limbs of giant Live Oaks layered in long boughs of Spanish moss, might bring back the memories of a land not so different. And so,I used it. I used the setting to haunt my character back into his past.
Here are three questions to consider regarding your current project:
1. How does my setting affect my plot?
2. Am I describing my setting enough my readers get a good feeling of place?
3. Where can I use my setting to increase tensions in my story?
As writers, we have a fabulous opportunity to create a setting that can challenge, terrorize, define, or manipulate characters. We can deepen the experience readers have in our books by helping them visualize and experience the setting through description and deep point of view.
In Living Lies, this meant being able to describe Savannah and the Live Oaks—visually but also experientially. I had to describe the giant, mossy trees and convey their earthy scent. I had to capture the essence of a small town in the south and use it to the advantage of the plot.
I urge you to consider how setting plays into the books you read, the movies you watch, and even in your own life! The next time you’re walking through the decrepit hallways of an old prison (I’ve done this twice), or hunkering down with your family as tear gas and bullets fill the air around you (true story), or canceling your sister’s bachelorette party due to warnings of an impending tsunami (true again), take notes on how you can use your setting to immerse your characters and your readers into a story they’ll never forget.
Natalie Walters is a military wife of 22 years and currently resides in Hawaii with her soldier husband and their three kids. She writes full-time and has been published in Proverbs 31 magazine and has blogged for Guideposts online. In addition to balancing life as a military spouse, mom, and writer, she loves connecting on social media, sharing her love of books, cooking, and traveling. Natalie comes from a long line of military and law enforcement veterans and is passionate about supporting them through volunteer work, races, and writing stories that affirm no one is defined by their past.