I have a confession to make. I used to think that setting didn’t matter. When I was a kid, reading, and I came across a section of beautiful description, I’d just skip over it. I wanted to get to the “good stuff,” by which I meant the action, mystery and intrigue. Little did I realize that woven into the fabric of the stories I loved most, setting played an integral part. I might have gone so far to tell you, “My favorite story is that mystery where the oceanliner sinks and the kids find themselves adrift on a life raft, and then they find treasure when they land on the deserted island. It’s exciting and there isn’t a lot of blah, blah, blah description.” Ironic, because all the things that happen in that story are particularly, directly related to setting.
It gets worse. When I started writing, I discovered my passion for writing fantasy. So, I set off to write fantasies in which a lot happened without a lot of blah, blah, blah description. I probably don’t have to tell you that my fantasies fell flat for many years until I learned not to turn my nose up at setting. I’ll probably never be one to include flowing passages of description in my books, but I’ve learned that specifics bring writing to life. I’ve learned it in my own writing, and I’ve learned it in teaching young people to write.
Take this for example: You have a character who is angry. If you’ve not clearly created a setting, you might find this character stomping around and waving his fists. But if he’s in a very quiet library, he can knock over a stack of books and the person he’s angry with can be mortified when the entire library of readers turns to stare. Or, put the angry character at an amusement park, and let her shove her way up to the front of the roller coaster line, upsetting popcorn and soda as she goes. Setting matters. It affects mood and tone, and gives your characters a world where they can act and react. The more specific the setting, the more clearly your reader can feel the moment, and the more unique a piece of writing feels.
It took me forever to get to this month’s theme, didn’t it? So, why am I writing about setting in relation to travel and my writing? The biggest reason is that my series, From Sadie’s Sketchbook, didn’t come to life until I took a trip to northern Minnesota and walked around in the forest with bears. Until then, I’d vaguely set my story in a small town outside Yellowstone National park. I’d been to Yellowstone, but not to the town I imagined in the story, and I couldn’t feel the setting inside me when I wrote the scenes. After I spent a weekend crashing through bushes, seeing bears up close and personal, picking ticks off my skin, and falling asleep to the sound of crickets in a small research cabin, I could slip inside Sadie’s skin. I knew how the woods would smell and feel. I shared Sadie’s emotional reaction to both seeing bears in person, and also observing hunters talk about bears as though they were nuisances or rats. Tapping into my own experience allowed me to add mood, humor, and specific detail into my story. I think the stories wouldn’t have come alive without my experience.
Since it’s just now summer, and we all are hopefully kicking our heels up and jetting off on little trips or bigger ones, I’d like to offer a challenge. Society of Young Inklings, which is a company dedicated to inspiring young writers, has an ongoing writing challenge called Caught on Camera. The basic idea is that writers create a character out of an ordinary object, say a soup can. Then, over the summer, writers take their character with them on trips and snap pictures of them in interesting locations, telling either individual stories about the character in each of these places, or carrying out a larger story in episodes that spans from place to place. The pictures and stories can be submitted to http://caught-on-camera.younginklings.com, where they will be published online.
We welcome submissions by kids of any age (yep, even adults who are young at heart!) This challenge is a fun way to stretch your creativity and think specifically about setting and how it affects your own writing. When you wriggle your character down into the sand, and then lay down to take your picture, you can’t help but notice the gritty texture of the sand between your fingers, the salty, fishy smell of the ocean, and the beautiful smooth green rock that you would have walked right by. It’s a fabulous family project, a wonderful challenge to pass on to young writers, and an excellent way to challenge yourself to let loose and play a little. And we can all use a little more play in our lives, right? Here’s to a summer filled with creativity, laughter, and writing.