CAN SETTING BE ANOTHER CHARACTER?

Location.  Setting.  Why is it so important to the stories we love to read and write?  It seems obvious in some cases.  In others, there could be a ‘hidden’ agenda. It can actually become another character.

Fifty years ago, the choices were limited.  Regencies and Westerns were prevalent sub-genres in the historical category, and mysteries and detective stories captivated the ‘contemporary’ nook.  Science fiction was still relatively uncharted.

The setting of a novel was a definitive device, separating the genres as clearly as any other element of writing.

The glittering ballrooms and colorful gowns and jewels whisked historical romance readers away to faraway, exotic locales.  Sagebrush, cactus, and danger awaited heroes of the western genre, a male- dominated readership.

But something odd happened as time went by.  The lines blurred.   Rosemary Rogers combined the romance of exotic places with the danger of an action plot, and an unforgettable hero in Steve Morgan that, had a man picked up ‘Sweet Savage Love’ and read it, he certainly could have identified with.

By the same token, the male-oriented scenery accompanied by the stiff, stylized form of western writers such as Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage, The Last Trail) gave way to Louis L’Amour (Conagher, the Sackett series) and Jack Schaefer (Shane, Monte Walsh).

Why is the evolving change in description of location so important?  In older writings, many times the location of a novel was just where the story happened to take place.  Often, the plot of the story dictated the setting, rather than the two forming any kind of  ‘partnership.’

But with the stories that came along later, that partnership was strengthened, and in some cases, location became almost another character in the plot.

Take Louis L’Amour’s ‘Conagher.’  As good as the movie was, the book gives us so much more insight into the characters’ thoughts and reasoning.  As he describes the heroine’s (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive.  Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see.  The underlying message is, “The land is what we make of it.”

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence.  She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she’d first laid eyes on.

The land is beautiful, but unforgiving.  Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn’t know what has happened to him.  She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.

In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds.  The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie.  Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East.  One of them says to Evie something to the effect of “I don’t know how you can stand it here.”
This is Evie’s response to her:

“I love it here,” she said suddenly.  “I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it’s in the wind.

“Oh, it is very hard!” she went on.  “I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances.  The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes.  But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines.  Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there”–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–”until I can see the other side…if there is another side.”

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate.  If that’s not romance, I don’t know what is.

Within 40 pages of  ‘Conagher’, the reader understands that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie’s character.  She can’t leave it, and it will never leave her.

I think of my own writing projects.  What importance do I give setting in my description, plot, even characterization? In my latest contemporary release, SWEET DANGER, the setting is of utmost importance because of the fact that the story takes place in a neighborhood deli,  a normally friendly, safe place to be.  Jesse Nightwalker and Lindy Oliver are introduced to one another by the deli owner.  On a particularly crowded day, they are forced to share a booth.  It’s a “first date” neither of them will ever forget.   Here’s an excerpt:

FROM SWEET DANGER:

Jesse looked past her, his smile fading rapidly. As the flash of worry entered his expression, Lindy became aware of a sudden lull in the noisy racket of the deli. Jesse’s dark gaze was locked on the front door, a scowl twisting his features.

“Damn it,” he swore, reaching for her hand. “Get down! Under the table, Lindy…”

But she hesitated a second too long, not understanding what was happening. In the next instant, the sound of semi-automatic gunfire and shattering glass filled the air.

Lindy reflexively ducked, covering her head. The breath of a bullet fanned her cheek as Jesse dragged her down beneath the sparse cover of the small table. He shielded her, his hard body crushing against her, on top of her, pushing her to the floor. The breath rushed out of her, and she felt the hard bulge of the shoulder holster he wore beneath the denim jacket as it pressed against her back.

Her heart pounded wildly, realization of their situation flooding through her. A robbery! But why, at this hour of the morning when the take would be so low? The gunfire stopped as abruptly as it had started. From somewhere near the counter, a man shouted, “Come out and you won’t be hurt! Come out—now!”

Lindy looked up into Jesse’s face, scant inches from her own. What would he do? They were somewhat concealed here at the back of the deli, but these men were sporting semi-automatic weapons.

“There’s a back door,” Jesse whispered raggedly. “Get the hell out of here. I’m gonna be your diversion.” She didn’t answer; couldn’t answer. He was likely to be killed, helping her go free. He gave her a slight shake. “Okay?”

An interminable moment passed between them before she finally nodded. “Get going as soon as I get their attention.” He reached to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes, his own gaze softening as he leaned toward her and closed the gap between them. “Take care of yourself, Lindy,” he whispered, just before his mouth closed over hers.

The instant their lips met shook her solidly. Every coherent thought fled, leaving nothing but the smoldering touch of his lips on hers, burning like wildfire through her mind. Soft, yet firm. Insistent and insolent. His teeth skimmed her lower lip, followed by his tongue, as he tasted her. Then, he pulled away from her, their eyes connecting for a heart-wrenching second.

“Safe passage,” he whispered.

Lindy didn’t answer, more stunned by the sudden sweet kiss than by the madness surrounding them. Jesse pushed himself out from under the table and stood up, directly in front of where Lindy crouched. Only then did she hear his muted groan of pain, his sharp, hissing intake of breath. The blossoming red stain of crimson contrasted starkly with the pale blue of his faded denim jacket as his blood sprang from the bullet wound, soaking the material.

He’d been shot!

Lindy gasped softly at the realization. How could she leave him now? He was hurt. Somehow, it didn’t seem right for her to escape, to leave him to deal with these men while he was bleeding.

Jesse hesitated. Lindy couldn’t be sure if it was intentional, or if the agony of the hole in his shoulder kept him still for that extra instant before he slowly walked away from the table, his hands up.

Lindy crept forward. Looking past where Jesse stood, halfway between her and the front of the deli, she caught her first good look at the leader of the small band of thieves. He stood close to the counter, his hair spiking in thin blond tufts, his stance indicating he was ready for anything. From the carnage around him, his cocksure attitude was warranted.

Three of his gang stood near the entrance, guns held on the few patrons who hadn’t managed to get out the door. The leader’s Glock was trained on Jesse’s midsection, a wide grin on his pale face. Then, he began to laugh, the gun holding steady through it all. “Jesse Nightwalker, as I live and breathe.”

“Yeah,” Jesse muttered. “Unfortunately.”

The gunman’s grin faded, and his eyes found Lindy’s from across the room. Mercurial. Hard. Deadly. The Glock never wavered, nor did his stance. Only his gray eyes changed, giving Lindy a silent warning before he spoke.

“Bring that baggage with you, Jess,” he said mildly. “Don’t leave her cowering under the table. There’s a back door to this hole, you know. Wouldn’t want her to get shot trying to do something foolish…like, escape.”

http://www.thewildrosepress.com/cheryl-pierson-m-534.html

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 40 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
Follow me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/cheryl.pierson.92
http://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules

22 Comments

  1. Cheryl, just got it and am waiting to start it until after the new grandbaby arrives this Friday morning! I can only take so much excitement! 🙂

    Yes, I do believe settings can be a character all their own. I often buy books because of the vivid details of where the action happens.

    And I am going to have to find a copy of Conagher!

    Peace, Julie

  2. Hi Julie,

    CONGRATULATIONS!!! A NEW GRANDBABY! THAT IS WONDERFUL! Yes, I know what you mean about only being able to take just so much excitement at once!LOL

    Conagher is a short book, easy read, and one of my favorite westerns. Our used bookstore usually has several copies on hand, and you can order it from Amazon for just a little of nothing.

    BTW, I have a “granddog”–no grandkids yet, so I am really excited for everyone that has grandkids or has one on the way soon. Keep us posted!

    Cheryl

  3. Heartstopping cover, Cheryl. And I love your writing style. “…The breath of a bullet fanned her cheek…” That’s just stunning. You’ve got a gift, lady.

    Great insights on the use of setting as character. The western I just finished, set on the northern California coast in 1858, takes place at the top of a high cliff where wreckage washes into the sea cove below. The sea and weather play a major part in the story.
    Your cozy deli setting against the hard action of your story works marvelously.

  4. I love finding a really unique setting that sets the mood.
    In Wrangler in Petticoats, the story is set in the rugged west and begins with the heroine being ambushed and shot and falling off a cliff.

    You know, the usual opening for a romantic comedy.

    But that land, where she lives, is a big part of the story.

    I’ve got one coming out next spring called Deep Trouble set in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I had so much fun researching that and just fell in love with the canyon while I wrote. I want to go to the bottom of the canyon so badly. But it’s a hard trip down. I doubt I’ll ever make it.

    But then the remoteness, the inability of anyone SOFT (like me!) to get there is part of the allure.

  5. 7 times out of 10, I get a book due to its setting, especially with a historical. I’ve found the setting is another character in the book, how it can cause conflict with the H/h and any other characters in the book. It honestly makes the book better.

  6. Hi Cheryl! One of the reasons I love westerns is the rugged terrain. Put a hero or heroine on a mountain in a blizzard, and you’ve got an instant test of character. You’ve also got another character in the blizzard, just like you said. The best settings add conflict, whether it be a small town with gossip or an impersonal big city.

    Your excerpt for Sweet Danger” is awesome! I’m hooked!

  7. Cheryl, what a great blog! You should submit an article to the RWR about setting as a character. I know it would be much appreciated by other writers.

    And what a heart-stopping excerpt! Oh my gosh! I could just reach out and feel the danger and suspense. I’ve got to get this book. I have to find out what happens next. Excellent writing.

  8. Hi Cheryl,
    Love the excerpt! Very exciting. So, of course I have to find out what happens next…
    Hadn’t really thought about the setting before, but yes, it does make a difference to me about where the scene is set. Westerns and Historicals have to be in rugged terrain to make it exciting, for me, anyway. I agree that it is another character for the story. Great insight. Thanks.

  9. Hi Cheryl,
    Very interesting concept of using the setting as a character. I had never thought about it before but you are so right! I just realized I buy books based on the setting at least 75% of the time.
    Sweet Danger sounds very exciting. And I’ll be off to the library to find Conagher. Can’t believe I’ve seen the movie but never read it.
    Do you think a writer needs to actually experience a setting first hand if it’s to be used in a major way in the story?

  10. Hi Elizabeth!

    WOW, what a nice compliment! Thanks so much. I love that cover, too. Angela Anderson did that for me, over at The Wild Rose Press.

    I love the weather as a part of the setting–so much can happen! Since I live in tornado alley, I’m thinking of writing my sequel to Time Plains Drifter (which will take place in present day Oklahoma) using that somehow. I’m glad to know that you like to use the weather/setting as a character, too.

    Thanks again for the very kind words.

    Cheryl

  11. Hi Mary,

    I visited the Grand Canyon when I was about 6, and the thing I remember about it is how all the little Indian kids were playing right there by the overlook–there were 2 metal bars that separated the place where you walked out to look from falling off the side. The mothers were just oblivious to them running and playing over there. LOL Guess they did it so much they didn’t even think of one of them slipping through the bars and falling over the side. I would love to go to the bottom, too, but like you, I fear that will never happen at my point in life now. LOL Maybe 20 years ago, but not today. Your books sound great, and what a good title! Deep Trouble–I love it!

    Cheryl

  12. Hi Winter,

    I so agree with that! That kind of conflict, the weather and the setting–there is so often nothing that can be done by the H/h to overcome that. They have to manage to survive, and so often that makes them have to depend on one another, and allows their relationship to move forward. I love that about setting–it’s kind of a ready made conflict in some cases that truly can advance the story in all kinds of different ways.

    Thanks for commenting!
    Cheryl

  13. Hi Vicki,

    Yes, I agree–the setting is so important and can be such a major player in the overall conflict of the story! I truly think Stephen King is a master of this–taking an everyday setting and turning it into something “hideously King-ish”–LOL But Louis L’Amour was wonderful at that, too. I remember in Hondo, how he is talking to the little boy about all the plants and wildlife in the desert and it just makes it come alive. Wonderful book, too. But Conagher is my favorite L’Amour book– it just has so much in such a short space, yet the pacing is great along with everything else.

    I’m so glad you liked my SWEET DANGER excerpt! Glad it drew you in.

    Cheryl

  14. Very interesting post.
    Loved the excerpt—just need to get the book.

  15. Linda, you are a DEAR! Thanks so much for even thinking of me writing an article for RWR! I never thought of that! And thanks so much for your very kind words about SWEET DANGER, and your confidence in me. I know we are “western gals” here at P&P, but my hero, Jesse, really is kind of a throwback. He’s a loner for sure, and thinks that he’ll never find love again. And of course, he HAS to be wounded—he’s in a Cheryl Pierson story! LOL

    I appreciate you, and I hope that you will enjoy SWEET DANGER when you get it.

    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  16. Hi Mary J.,

    I am so happy that you enjoyed the excerpt for Sweet Danger! You are so right–I believe the rugged terrain is very crucial in the westerns and most historicals that we read to up the ante and make the conflict even more dangerous.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

    Cheryl

  17. ooh
    now i want to read conagher and must read sweet danger!
    you are so good at pulling us in!

  18. Hi Judy,

    Wow that is an interesting thought you had about wondering if the writer needs to experience the setting first hand in order to write it as a major part of the story. I think “major” is the key word here–and here’s why. If we are writing westerns or historicals, there truly is not any way we can go back and experience those things first hand, so we have to research some things. One thing that I’m really thankful for is the fact that I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and so I know what the land looks like and the way it looks and feels if we are in for hail or maybe even a tornado. I know what the sunsets and sunrises look like here, and the stars, etc. So things like that are easy for me to write about. There is probably no way I would ever write a story with a setting in a different country, or even in parts of the US that I’m not familiar with. The reason is, that there are people who ARE familiar with it and each part of our country has its own dialects and expressions, among other things, so I don’t want to write something I’d get laughed “off the stage” about. LOL BUT, having said that, I think in subgenres such as fantasy and sci-fi, steampunk, paranormal, and other speculative genres, the sky’s the limit, because one person’s imaginings are just as innovative and different as the next person’s and might be just the very thing that someone wants to read. Very interesting thought!

    The movie of Conagher and the book are very similar, but I really love the book because of being able to know the characters’ thoughts and feelings so strongly. I love the movie because…well, because SAM’s in it! LOL

    Thanks for commenting!
    Cheryl

  19. Hi Estella!

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I’m glad you liked the excerpt!

    Cheryl

  20. Hey Tabitha!

    Thank you, girl! I appreciate you! I hope you will get Conagher AND Sweet Danger! LOL I love all things western, and there is a bit of slow blooming romance in Conagher. It won’t take you long to read it.

    Thanks so much for coming by and reading and commenting!

    Cheryl

  21. Avatar

    I certainly agree with you on the importance of setting in a story. In some cases it can act as another character in the story. Some stictly relationship stories can take place anywhere and it wouldn’t matter. Others work best only if set in a certain place.
    This is the second time I have read an excerpt from your SWEET DANGER. Sounds like a story I’ll enjoy. I’ll be looking for it.

  22. Hi Patricia,

    You are so right–there are some stories out there that could take place anywhere and it just wouldn’t matter that much. Others–there’s no way it could happen anywhere else in quite the same way.

    Thanks so much for your kind words about SWEET DANGER. I appreciate that, and I do hope you enjoy it.

    Cheryl

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