Sunday, February 04, 2007

What's With the Snow?

This past week we experienced something here in northern Alabama that doesn't happen very often. Snow!!!!

We tend to go a little crazy around here when this phenomenon occurs. Many northerners laugh because a forecast for less than two inches can send us to the grocery store to empty the milk and bread aisles (not to mention the potato chips, oddly enough). Most all the schools and businesses close, or at least open late. It's crazy, I know, but I enjoy the craziness because it adds to the sense of excitement.

Have you ever noticed how real life weather or scenery can add a certain emotion to the day? Or contrast to an important life event? The day I married my husband was a stifling, hot Southern July day. But as soon as the ceremony finished, a huge thunderstorm blew in and rained buckets on the church. It was so unexpected that we didn't even notice that the interior had darkened considerably so that some of our wedding pictures didn't turn out.

Now, a thunderstorm completely contrasted with the joy and hope that day represents to me. But an older lady told me that wedding days marked by thunderstorms are actually considered to be blessed, capable of weathering anything to last through the ages. Personally, I have to agree.

This nostalgic trip down weather lane does actually have a purpose. :) The characters and events in our books don't occur in a void, though if you read my first drafts you'd think they did. Oh, and that my characters were all naked too. Setting is one of the things I go back and layer into my books, because during the first round I'm concentrating on recording the story as it rushes through me. I don't want to miss anything. I can add the extraneous stuff later.

For other authors, I'm sure setting is one of their strengths. They use it as it occurs in real life, as the backdrop to the dramas, a contrast or enhancement to events, or obstacle in their characters' paths.

I had the privilege of reading one of these authors this week. I read the Mistress of Trevelyan by Jennifer St. Giles. This was her first book, published in 2004, a gothic historical set in San Francisco in 1873. Now I can't wait to read her others! I grew up reading gothic romances from our local library all through my teenage years and loved them. This story has all the traditional elements, down to the governness heroine and mysterious master hero. (But don't make the mistake of thinking this storyline is cliche. Far from it!) Most of all, it is set in a dark, gothic mansion surrounded by frequent fog. That's right, fog.

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St. Giles doesn't just have her characters look outside and notice fog. What would be the fun in that? Instead the weather almost serves as an additional character in the book. The fog might serve to heighten tension, add mystery, cloak the unexpected. Sometimes the fog disippates, leaving behind a beautiful day for exploring, horseback riding, or seeking out answers to mysterious clues. There's even a day that starts off great for the heroine and she expects nice weather, but when they get outside, there are dark, dangerous storm clouds on the horizon.

Another interesting piece of the setting is a stained glass window in the entryway of the manor house. Light shines through the glass to fill the air with colors, representing hope for the family within just as much as the fog represents the secrets they keep.

After reading this book, I'm encouraged to pay more attention to the settings in my own and how my characters interact with their surroundings. I think a skillfully created location, weather, house, etc., will only deepen the story and the characters, pushing the book that much closer to being a "keeper."

What books have you read with delicious, interesting settings? How do you make your settings come alive in a book without overpowering the story?



Kathy said...

I loved the book Mistress of Trevelyn by Jennifer St. Giles. I read it after she signed my copy at the Moonlight and Magnolia Conference over 1 1/2 years ago. Try reading His Dark Desires, it references St. Giles' fascination with the POTO story. (She's a big Gerard Butler fan!) Ms. St. Giles weaves a masterful story in MOT. I am enthralled with her usage of 1st person POV and the way she keeps up a mysterious pace throughout her stories.

A tornado struck the grounds of the Officer's Club the night of our rehearsal dinner. (Old, old trees were completely uprooted. Imagine being told during the dinner that everyone else in the building was already in the basement and that we needed to direct our party to do the same.)The forecast called for storms the next day, the day of our wedding, but the sky was clear. We were married at 6 p.m. and thankfully the rain held off until around 8 p.m. that night.

Setting is so important in stories. As you say, it grounds the story, makes the reader feel, see, experience and relate to characters. I love spending time on setting.


Playground Monitor said...

In July 2004 I was headed to RWA in Dallas and put a book called FRENCH TWIST in my carry-on bag for the flight. I read about half on the flights to Dallas. Then in Dallas I met the author and just adored her. I started reading again in the airport going back home and finished the last page literally as the plane touched down in Huntsville. The book was set in France and opened at the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris. I visited there when we lived in Germany so I could picture the palace and the gardens. And when the characters left for the countryside and later the mountains, I could visualize that too. It made the book really come alive and to this day it's still my very favorite of Rocki St. Claire's books.

I'd like to turn your question around and ask "How can setting kill a book?" When it's not right, that's how. I read a book once that was set on the coast of Georgia. The author talked about rocky cliffs and crashing waves. She's obviously never been to the coast of Georgia. It's flat and unless a storm's brewing in the Atlantic, the waves are about an inch high and they don't crash. The Internet makes it so easy to research things now and if you've done any networking as a writer you should know someone who knows someone whose great aunt's sister-in-law lives on the Georgia coast and you could ask her for description. Or... you could ask me. *g*


Problem Child said...

Sorry, I just flashed to graduate school...I wrote about setting in my Modern Novel class. I'm still carrying the scars.

I do think setting is important--it can be a character itself. I agree with PM though, make sure you know a little about your setting. (I can't believe an editor and a copy editor didn't catch the Ga. beach issue. Call the tourist board!)

Kelley St. John said...

I loved Mistress of Trevelyan AND French Twist. Love Rocki and Jenni's writing -- way cool to see you discussing them here. And I agree, the weather can definitely emphasize the emotion in a book, as can the setting, and both of these books do an incredible job as using both to their fullest :)


catslady said...

I just wanted to say I too enjoyed Mistress of Trevelyan and French Twist. Both authors are automatic buys for me.

Instigator said...

I must admit that setting is usually not one of my strong suits. Every now and again a scene will pop into my head complete with the background but usually it's a fog until I get around to filling that part in.


Jennifer Y. said...

Mistress of Trevelyan sounds like a really good book.

I love all kinds of settings, but agree with PM...I'd like for them to be accurate.