Claudia’s post earlier this month led me to think about when describing setting is important and when it isn’t. My WIP is set in a generic suburban neighborhood with a creek for frog hunting, a cranky neighbor, an overgrown yard, and a school bus stop. I rely on readers to add color from their own neighborhoods, their own cranky neighbors. Didn’t we all have a Mrs. Crabapple down the street growing up?
The way we describe setting can tell us a lot about character and emotions, and those are the details I pull in when necessary.
In my historical fiction describing setting was more important. My readers haven’t lived in colonial Boston, Gettysburg during the battle, or World War II Paris. They can’t add color from their own experiences. Traveling to the places I wrote about helped me find the details that can brought the setting to life, but even more vital were the details I learned by reading primary sources. In that way I knew that the place to go for penny candy in 1863 Gettysburg was Petey Williams’ store, and that when Owen Robinson cranked out ice cream at his confectionary, it cost ten cents.
As much fun as some of those details are, it's important to include setting details that bring our characters to life. So when Michael walks through a Paris train station, what he notices are not the French people bustling to train platforms and about to embark on adventures, but the Nazi soldiers and the threat they represent.
For more about setting, I can highly recommend Janni Lee Simner’s FINDING YOUR SENSE OF PLACE: http://simner.com/writinglife/