EPISODE 5, Season 4 - Setting
In episode 5, Melissa and Jeni talk to author Whitney Hill about setting
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Or listen to the audio podcast here: EPISODE 5 - Setting
Welcome to the Indie Chicks show! I’m Melissa Koberlein, an author and professor of publishing and she’s Jeni Chappelle, a freelance novel editor.
Indie Chicks celebrates and supports independent women in publishing. We’re a place for writers at all stages of the publishing process. So, whether you’re on the traditional route to publication or self-publishing, you’ve come to the right place for advice.
On this episode:
We’re talking about setting
End with an author tip of the week
This week we’re joined by Whitney Hill. Whitney writes adult fantasy from her adopted home of Durham, North Carolina. Her worlds feature the diversity she has lived as a biracial woman of color and former migrant to Europe. She draws on these life experiences to write characters trying their best to find a place for themselves. Whitney is a member of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Her romantic suspense/thriller novel, Unauthorized, is complete on Wattpad.
Outside of writing, she enjoys hiking in North Carolina’s many beautiful state parks and learning about world mythology.
Here's the Q&A
Could you talk about the different elements that make up setting in a novel?
Setting isn’t just the physical location, time of day, or historical period. It’s all the elements of the character’s external environment that give a place its flavor and impact the character.
How do you know you’re in 1940s London and not modern-day New York? What details would differentiate two big cities, or even the same place in different time periods? Traditions, architecture, politics, conflicts, laws, technology, accessibility, culture, dress, socioeconomics, historical influences, modern changes, the characteristics of the population, the climate and weather, food and drink, the media consumed (or not), how people are educated (or not). What makes a location unique?
For example, the region in which I currently live and have used as a setting for my urban fantasy novel has seen a huge influx of newcomers from all over the US and the world as the local tech industry grows. That has had impacts on infrastructure, the kinds of businesses that open and thrive, neighborhood gentrification, state politics, the accents you overhear at the grocery store and the license plates of cars parked in the neighborhood.
All of this impacts other elements, like dialogue, the possible conflicts or supporting characters that could be introduced, the way characters think and react, and the knowledge or information they could be expected to have or discover.
Why is setting so important to set the mood?
It determines how immersed the reader is in a story and how believable the story is. It could be about space aliens or ghosts or whatever – if I can feel like I’m there, I will make the leap to buying into the whole story without thinking about it, because I can feel the story. When you’ve set a mood and instilled a feeling, you’re operating on a more basic and gripping level than thought.
It also goes to making a connection with characters. We’re all impacted to some extent by our external environment. Most people don’t enjoy being stuck in a cold, pouring rain, so it’s easy to imagine how that would dampen good news or worsen bad news for a character, which can add tension. If, on the other hand, your character loves it, that tells me something about them. Their reaction isn’t like mine, and I’d like to know why. In both cases, I’ve connected with the character and the story.
Lastly, it impacts how characters react to conflicts, information, or other characters – for example, when the character is forced into a new setting. Depending on how they handle novelty, characters new to a location might have more extreme reactions, or suppress their natural reactions. That plays into the mood and atmosphere of the story as well.
What are some common mistakes that authors make in regards to setting?
A big one for me is relying on stereotypes, their imagining of a place, or secondhand accounts from people who only visited for a week.
In that vein, most people not from the area in which I live would think of it as part of the American South and would attach all of the stereotypes of the Southern US to it – including myself before I moved here. But if I had just written it as my imagining of the South, it would have missed out on a lot of nuances, and gotten a lot wrong. Things like that will throw people out of the story.
Another related mistake is seeing the setting from a single perspective – usually that of the author’s own background – and not taking intersectionality into consideration. People, and therefore characters, move through settings differently depending on who they are, who they think themselves to be, the experiences they’ve had, how others perceive them to be, and also on how law, culture, tradition, access, or ability dictate. A setting that is welcoming to one character could be dangerous to another, especially those who aren’t part of the dominant group of an area.
Do you have any advice for new authors in regards to setting?
Put your phone down! By which I mean, make a conscious effort to be more present. Pay more attention to where you are and what’s around you. Train your powers of observation and empathy.
One of the beautiful things about being a writer is sharing a world with others. When possible, I love going to places I’d like to use as settings and taking notes. What does the place smell like? What kind of people are there, who fits in and who sticks out? What can I hear? What is in the environment, both natural and built? Sometimes you find plaques with historical information, notices about changes or events coming to the area, or signs protesting something that’s going on. That’s all information you can Google later, or use as the basis of interview questions with local people to add richness to your world.
Lastly, if you can do so without compromising the privacy of others, take pictures or video to use as a writing prompt. See if you can capture the scene with as few words as possible.
Even if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, something not set in the real world, you can use that to map details into your settings to make them feel more real and make a connection with your reader.
Tip of the week: Give your characters the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator test!
On our next podcast, Jeni and Melissa are talking with author, Jessica Lewis, about signing with a literary agent. We will also have another Tip of the Week.
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So, remember, we’re all part of a publishing community, be kind and review your fellow authors’ books! Thanks for joining us!
Indie Chicks out.