Thursday, October 15, 2009

When Settings Attack

Die Trattalmen--Alfons Walde (8 February 1891 - 11 December 1958)

Most of the time when I’m out running errands, I’m in a happy little Neverland, thinking about other things.

Yesterday I was actually mulling over settings while I was out and about. I wanted to add some short but punchy descriptive scenes to my Memphis Barbeque book. I’m not a fan of reading setting descriptions and a common editorial comment on my WIPs is that I need to incorporate extra description of _______room or ______person or ______place. I got that exact editorial direction again and have been busily making additions.

So I’m thinking about my settings (since my deadline is tomorrow), and I walked into Target (a discount store, for my non-American friends. A slightly more upscale Walmart.)

It wasn’t my Target, though—the one I usually go to that’s nearest to my house. It was a Target that was near some other errands I was running.

A foreign Target. And—God forbid—it was backwards. Do you know what I’m talking about? The whole store was set up completely backwards from the one that I usually go to….from the location of the entrance all the way back to the pet food aisle.

The store’s setting was so unexpected, in-my-face, and distracting, that I forgot half the things I’d gone in there for.

Which is exactly what I don’t want to have happen in my WIP.

If the setting description is distracting, it detracts from the purpose of the scene. I want my setting to provide an accent, not function as a main character. I’m not writing a man against nature book, where the setting would play a tremendous role. There are many books where the setting works like a character. I like some of those books. And setting helps me to tell my story. But for my books, it still needs to stick to the background.

I think that’s what I find jarring about description, as a reader. I love it to provide atmosphere. I love it to contribute to the conflict (confined setting, limited number of murder suspects, etc.) I don’t love it when I’m reading happily along and the writer starts waxing poetic about the setting:

And now I’ll impress you all with my lovely, spellbinding descriptions. Aren’t I a clever and talented writer?

So I went back through yesterday and made sure my setting additions weren’t slapping anybody in the face. I made a couple of changes to make my additions more seamless.

  • I included some descriptions via dialogue.
  • I compared one character’s appearance to a well-known person (which is tricky. It’s better to use a historical figure than a pop culture figure who might date your book.)
  • I mixed it up and used descriptive smells and sounds instead of only visual descriptions.
  • I tried to make one major standout, focal point for a setting or character description, instead of a laundry list of details.

I’m hoping my story’s descriptions will enhance my book. The last thing I want is to be eligible for an episode of "When Settings Attack.”'s Thursday morning. I had the pleasure of interviewing the fabulous Berkley Prime Crime author Laura Childs for the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen. She shares a delicious recipe for Chocolate Sour Cream Scones. Hope you can join us.