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Make Your “Where” Memorable

by Katrina Stonoff 27 January 2010 5 Comments

One of my biggest weaknesses is setting. My early drafts could be set in any suburb — like the featureless town where I grew up. I would try to go back and add setting details, but they felt irrelevant and tacked on (as indeed, they were).

Then last November, I attended a Fire in Fiction workshop given by über-agent Donald Maass, and Maass brought setting home to me for the first time.

“World development is context, not description,” he said. “Emotions are what pull the reader in, not details. Not plot. Not description. Emotion.”

OK, that I can understand. But how is it done?

Maass suggested you choose one scene and write down the five things your character would notice first. Seriously, do this. Write them down.

You cannot use any of those details. They are too easy, too obvious, too bland.

Instead, freeze the action for a moment, and let your character take the time to look around. What might he notice if he had the time? More important, how does she feel about the details? What does he like or dislike about the place? Does she find the dim firelight soothing or spooky? It’s how the character feels about the setting that brings it to life — and makes it relevant to your story.

I should note that Maass has a series of great exercises, not just about setting but about all the elements of writing stories, in his book, The Fire in Fiction. My copy is already dog-eared and ragged.

My novel East of Jesus is set in a small town near where I grew up — remember that featureless suburb? It was Tempe, Arizona. When I started East of Jesus, I’d been living in lush, drizzly Washington state for several years, so I was working from memory on the setting. Here’s what I remembered about Tempe:

  • It was hot.
  • The ground was gritty, hard-packed dirt, no grass in sight except in a handful of meticulously watered lawns.
  • There were no trees except scrubby desert trees (not at first anyway). And cactus.

That’s not much. And it doesn’t create a visual image, much less stimulate the imagination.

Then I did the Donald Maass exercise, and realized the suburb where I grew up was anything but featureless. Every night before we went to bed, my sisters and I checked our bedroom walls for scorpions. During the day, we captured horny toads and dared each other to taste the “tomato juice” they spat on our hands (nobody ever dared!). In the summer, it was so hot the asphalt melted, and you could only cross the street in bare feet on a dead run, and you had to find a wet patch of grass quickly on the far side, to sooth your burned soles. When it rained, we ran outside to play in the downpour, intoxicated by the smell of the wet dust.

Hmm. Notice anything odd about that last paragraph? I’m not describing a setting at all. Instead, I’m narrating how the setting acted upon me as a child. The child in me is interacting with the setting, and she has strong feelings about it.

So does my character, it turns out. Grace is afraid of the scorpions and the dramatic lightning that shatters the summer sky. She feels sterile, sucked dry by the relentless sun. The mountains loom over her house as a threat, not as guardian. She longs for vivid color, somewhere to rest her eyes that is not beige or washed-out sage green.

Just like that, my setting came to life, and the more I wrote, the more details I remembered, and the more emotion my character released.

My hometown only seemed featureless to me because it was so familiar. I had to spend the time digging deeper for unusual details — details attached to a strong emotion — to make my hometown a distinctive place. A place that could never be confused with Canton, Ohio, or Coral Springs, Florida, or anywhere other than Tempe, Arizona.


  • Janel said:

    Great advice, Katrina. I have added The Fire In Fiction to my wish list. Sounds like it is packed full of useful information.

  • Jeannie Ruesch said:

    *waving at Katrina* Hi!!! I just attended this workshop this past weekend and WOW. What an amazing day.

    I love your revised “description.” What I found so helpful in his workshop is the way he explained that a setting is a “world” — much like if you are writing science fiction, you have to build that world, you do the same, in a different way for any genre you write. Even set in contemporary times, because as he points out, someone’s feelings about their surroundings is very personal, unique. Those details are what makes that setting become a character, become real.

    Grace’s setting gives her something to fear, something to face — what a wonderful way to make the story richer.

  • ginabad said:

    Ooo, good stuff!! I’m glad I read this. Adding that book to my list…

  • Jeannie Ruesch said:

    Gina, you HAVE to get the book — the workshop is terrific and I’m reading the book now and it’s all there, every last word.

  • Katrina Stonoff (author) said:

    Janel and Gina: The Fire in Fiction book really is a fabulous resource. Right now, it’s the ONE that sits face-up on my desk and never even gets put between bookends.

    Jeannie, isn’t he amazing? I went to a much shorter version of the FinF workshop two and a half years ago, when he was first developing it and still writing the book. I immediately pulled my novel from submission and signed up for his weeklong Writing the Breakout Novel Intensive workshop. It’s been an amazing two years — kinda like grad school.

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