For many writers, setting the stage for the story is the most difficult aspect to master. Too much description becomes an “info dump” that readers blithely skim. Too little, and the reader is lost as to where and when the story takes place. What’s a writer to do? How do you know which details of the place and time of the story are pertinent and which details are extraneous?
I’d like to tell you a story about the “ah-ha” moment I had years ago about choosing setting details worth sharing.
To set the scene, we’ll have to travel back in time to 1995. I went to England and Scotland for a month with a small group of students from Indiana University and a larger group of teachers from the University of Manitoba. My study topic was everything related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, including his Sherlock Holmes stories. What I learned during this trip comprised way more than Doyle but also observations about the people, the signage, the language, and more. For our purposes, the walk we took along a canal provided the moment of insight that transformed my description of the place and time of my stories forever.
We passed a three-story stone house crowding a pebble and dirt trail edging the canal. The first person in the group pointed out the window box of flowers. The next noted the striation of the stone foundation. Yet another liked the colorful door. Each person saw something different, and each announced observation reflected the type of study that person was doing on this trip. In other words, the life experience filter of each person guided them to notice related specifics of the house.
For our stories, then, it’s important to have the point-of-view character notice what’s important and meaningful to that person.
For example, in my debut novel, Traces (Ghosts of Roseville Book 1), Meredith is an architect who has turned to demolition to try to vent the anger within her over the loss of her husband and unborn child. She inherits the family plantation, but does she care about the beauty of the architecture or recall wonderful childhood memories when she arrives to claim it? In a word, no. Here’s what she sees based on her current experience filter:
Meredith Reed glared at the plantation home she’d inherited from a grandmother she only vaguely recalled and plotted its demise. A pair of ancient live oaks, the inspiration for the Twin Oaks name, guarded either side of the sprawling two-story brick dwelling, providing shade and funneling cool air through the house. Sunlight filtered through the Spanish moss draped on the massive limbs. Meredith raised one hand to shield the glare as she scanned the façade. The architect in her appreciated the symmetry of the Greek Revival style as well as the quality workmanship of the brickwork, but neither aspect added value for the salvage companies.
First, she’d dismantle it one piece at a time, removing anything of value and selling it off quickly to whomever had the money to buy it. She studied the once-elegant antebellum house, its wide front steps missing a brick here and there, its six elaborate Corinthian columns and intricately carved woodwork surrounding the double doors. The property description listed ten bedrooms, four bathrooms dating from the early twentieth century, a gourmet kitchen, two parlors, an upstairs ballroom, and several outbuildings. Despite the building’s grand scale, the house was too small to warrant using dynamite to implode. Damn. But she could visualize a nice, hot fire licking up the exterior. Yes, a fire would serve the purpose of bringing it down.
See how we can see the house through her eyes? Feel her anger and then her satisfaction with the plan to burn it down? Meredith is educated as to the proper terms associated with the architecture: Greek Revival; Corinthian. Incorporating the setting into the character’s thoughts and actions makes the setting come to life, like another character in your story.
In Emily’s Vow (A More Perfect Union Book 1), we can visualize the parlor Amy is pacing through because it’s presented through Emily’s knowing eyes and thoughts.
“Pshaw. I’ve seen how men treat their wives.” Emily dabbed her kerchief at the corner of her eyes. “How fathers give away their daughters with their dowry and little more than a kiss good-bye and good riddance. I’ll not do it, I tell you.”
“I cannot believe what I’m hearing.” Amy shook her head, rising from her seat and pacing past the carved mahogany bookcase filling one long wall. She stopped by a round table with its cut-glass decanters of maroon port and amber sherry and four glasses. Toying with the lace doily, she said, “You cannot believe your father would allow you to forgo marriage and children. You know he won’t support you forever.”
“He won’t have to,” Emily said. “For once, Father must understand my position.”
“But Em, this is simply not done. You know this is impossible.”
“It should not be impossible. Can’t you see? I cannot risk having children.” Emily felt her heart contract in disappointment. She fiddled with the gold band, recalling her childhood dreams of robust sons and lovely, precocious daughters to help her and love her in her dotage. But no more.
“All because of Elizabeth’s death?” Samantha asked softly. She moved to stand near Emily and peered into her eyes. “Is that what you’re afraid of?”
Emily searched Samantha’s eyes, willing her to understand. “First my mother and now my sister perished after birthing children.” A tremor coursed through her. Her dear twin, Elizabeth. How she missed her happy chatter and caring ways. “Samantha, you as a midwife know even better than I do how many women die in childbirth. I dare not risk it.”
Amy paced the lavishly furnished room. Her homespun skirts brushed her ankles as she turned at each corner of the oriental carpet, avoiding the cushioned sofas and side chairs. “But, my dear, it’s simply not permissible for ladies of our station to be shopkeepers. If I know Uncle Joshua, he will be furious once he hears of this ridiculous notion of yours.”
When we write in deep POV, like these two examples, then we must immerse ourselves in the senses of our POV character. What is he or she seeing, feeling, hearing, and smelling? What do they expect to sense but don’t? What important details can reveal the inner motivation of the character? Asking yourself these types of questions as you write, and even more when you revise, will help you pinpoint the precise descriptions necessary to fully round out your characters by showing what is important to them.