I was recently on holiday in Northern Ireland, where we visited the Giant’s Causeway on a wet and windy day. I was intrigued to see that the car park was laid with a hexagonal brick-weave, reflecting the basalt columns that make up the Causeway. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a car park surface before. It’s only when we go on holiday, take a walk in unfamiliar territory, move to a new neighbourhood, that we actually take a note of our surroundings. We don’t realise how little we notice our immediate environment until we change it. And this can have a big impact on our writing.
Like me, you probably read a novel and accept the setting as just being part of the story. But if we accept that our environment influences our own actions, it follows that where a novel or story is set might have a bearing on how our characters behave. Are they products of their environment? Do their actions reflect their location? Or does their location dictate their behaviour?
The idea that people behave in a certain way because of where they live is worth exploring. All characters require a setting and how they negotiate it should reveal something about them. Someone confined to a prison cell or a hospital bed will have a much narrower experience than one who has the freedom to roam the countryside or take the bus to another town. Someone marooned on an island can be subject to all manner of events; you can really let your imagination go.
The workplace has great potential as a setting. My new novel, Breaking News, is set, like the first, in a 24-hour newsroom. It’s a familiar environment for me; I worked in TV news for many years, and still remember the thrill of a breaking story. The atmosphere of exhilaration and anticipation, coupled with the everyday humdrum between headlines, creates a backdrop that has an inevitable effect on my characters.
In brooding, Gothic tales like Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the setting is an integral part of the story, taking on a personality of its own. It reflects a character’s mood or state of mind, intensifying it, as well as adding texture and atmosphere to the story. So your protagonist’s character could be revealed by their response to the environment. If you’re telling a tale about loneliness a remote setting might seem the obvious choice, but a busy, anonymous city could exaggerate a character’s isolation. Does your heroine enjoy the anonymity, or does she feel like an outsider, always looking in?
Setting a novel on a train, or a long-distance greyhound bus will allow you to exploit the claustrophobic restrictions of a confined space set against an ever-changing external backdrop. I took a greyhound trip across America many years ago and still remember the landscape of the mid-west; it was almost a character in itself.
But setting is more than just topography. Weather can play a part, too. Billy Connolly famously said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Add a torrential downpour to an isolated setting with no shelter, no mobile signal and an inexperienced city dweller, and you’ve got the start of an atmospheric story (if you can navigate the obvious clichés inherent in such a combination!).
Thomas Hardy devoted an inordinate amount of pages to the description of the heath in The Woodlanders, but it was to great effect, illustrating the lives of the peasants, dominated by their surroundings, prisoners of their landscape. Today’s audience just does not have the patience or discipline to plough through pages of deathless prose, no matter how beautifully written. So beware of too much description. It slows the pace and lessens the tension. It interrupts the story and readers are prone to skip over paragraphs or pages that don’t advance the plot. Unless it helps reveal character, create mood or move the story along, it needs to come out. There should be no room for setting as window dressing.