A Sense of Place

elizname2small1What part does physical setting play in the stories you read and write?  In some stories the setting is just a backdrop, like the painted set in a play.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  I’ve seen compelling dramas played out with no scenery at all.  But in my own writing, the setting is as important as the characters. 

 Setting can add a sense of reality.  It can be used to enhance the emotion in a scene.  Think of a castle. borrowed-bride Imagine it in a raging storm with lightning flashing over the parapets.  Imagine it again bathed in moonlight with the scent of gardenias floating on the air.  Put your hero and heroine in each setting and imagine what would happen.  My novella for the upcoming Harlequin Christmas anthology is a story of tragedy, blame and forgiveness.  I used the bleak, wintry Texas plains to express the emotions of the husband returning home after an unjust imprisonment and the wife whose world was shattered by his absence. Setting can even take a role the story—the sweltering sky that refuses to rain, the old house that hides its secrets, the ocean that separates two lovers.   

In my own stories I like to use natural settings.  Since I grew up in the rural west, hiking, exploring and camping with my family, I’m at home in the outdoors.  My biology background helps me add birds, animals and plants.  As most authors will tell you, the secret of bringing a setting to life is in the details—the splash of a cutthroat trout in a mountain lake, the croak of a raven, the scent of moss and wet earth.  These kinds of details come naturally to me.  They’re easy.  But for my next release, due out in April, I took on a whole new set of challenges.  substitute-bride-cover

Those of you who’ve read THE BORROWED BRIDE, will be happy to know that Quint and Annie get their story in the sequel, HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE.  The new book follows Quint to 1906 San Francisco, where he’s become a crusading reporter.  Annie brings his daughter Clara for a visit, and romance blossoms.  I had a great time writing the story, but the research was daunting.  Luckily my daughter and her husband live near the Bay area.  I was able to combine a research trip with a fun family visit.  We trooped all over town, having a great time and getting a feel for the city.  Coupled with that, I did hours and hours of reading and studying old photos, trying to capture the city as it was before the 1906 earthquake and fire (yes, that’s in the book). 

Did I succeed?  You can let me know after you’ve read the story in April.  But I can show you the cover now.  Here it is.  The characters and background are perfect, but I would have added one element to the picture—the infamous San Francisco fog.  

Do you have a favorite setting for the stories you write and/or read?  What kind of details make a setting come alive for you?  If you could visit the setting for one book, where would you go? 


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20 thoughts on “A Sense of Place”

  1. I agree. Small towns can make great settings for stories. I’m especially fond of reading mysteries set in small towns. Thanks for your comment. Please come back and join us again.

  2. I love the cover! The hero’s a real hottie, I must say. (When it comes to covers, it’s all about the hero, IMO. Which is why this trend to just show his mouth and chin, cutting off the top of his head, is unacceptable to me.)

    Harlequin Historicals — as well as Steeple Hill Inspirational Historicals — have some of the best covers these days, hands down. They do a great job. And this next one — which I’ll definitely buy because I read and enjoyed “The Borrowed Bride” — looks wonderful.

    San Francisco, 1906, is a great setting. Add a certain seismic event, and you’ve got DRAMA. (OK, I’m just guessing … ;o) )


  3. What a great cover, Elizabeth, both of them are, but I love that San Francisco, carriage, kissing cover. VERY nice.

    Setting is, like you say, flexible. It can be just a backdrop or it can almost be another character in the book.

    My book set in Alaska the setting was fundmental. But when you’re writing a western it’s a little trickier. I mean, rolling tumbleweeds, a ranch, longhorns. This is great but it’s pretty standard stuff. That doesn’t mean a story can’t be set well and use a kind of standard background that is still really ALIVE. But it’s just…well, you can sort of count on the reader to fill in the blanks. I mean, we’ve all seen a western set on a Texas Ranch, right?

    But sometimes the setting becomes key. I’m writing westerns now set in Wyoming and Montana. That appeals to me for some reason. I think I’m just interested in the beauty of the mountains and the challenges created by hard winters and treacherous cliffs.

    But Texas is a diverse state, too. There are mountains there, and the snow can fall and the wind howl.

    I like small towns for a setting too, but I’m looking forward to seeing SanFrancisco. I’ve read some really good books set in historical San Francisco, very rich setting.

  4. Thanks for your very insightful comment, Mary. As one of my friends says, if you’ve seen one tumbleweed, you’ve seen ’em all. But it’s always good to add some specific details. I’ve set books on ranches in Wyoming and Colorado. The settings were easy to do but I did research the locations. Historical San Francisco took a ton of research because there’s so much information and it’s so well known, I had to get it right. Hope I did.

  5. Elizabeth, congratulations on The Substitute Bride! A very romantic, sensual cover. That woman is gorgeous and the man is really hot! I thoroughly enjoyed The Borrowed Bride so I’ll be on pins and needles until April for this one. Can’t wait to see how you change Quint from a selfish jerk to a man with a purpose. I’ll bet you can do it though.

    And I’m also eager for your Texas-set story in the Christmas anthology. Yippee!

    You pose some interesting questions today. I love those stories when the setting springs to life and becomes a secondary character. It adds such a depth of emotion that would otherwise be missing. I used to love reading those gothic romances with the gloomy castles draped in heavy fog. Such character! Those stories always kept me in doubt as to the hero’s intentions. Was he good? Was he bad or a little of both? They fascinated me. I miss those.

  6. Thanks, Linda. Quint has had six years to grow up between the last book and this one. But he’s still Quint, and Annie has her hands full. Hope you enjoy it.
    Oh, I adored those old gothics, too. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney…I cut my romantic teeth on those ladies. And those old houses and castles. Even without the sizzling love scenes those stories were the best.

  7. I don’t have to have a favorite setting for the
    books I read. They just need to be real and
    believable, someplace where I can “see” myself!

    Pat Cochran

  8. Hi Elizabeth, like you, I love the outdoors and writing about sensual details. Wow, your new book set in San Francisco sounds fantastic! Congratulations! It’s a gorgeous cover. 🙂 I’ve done some researching on the city, too, and was amazed how huge it was already at that time. And the high buildings in the downtown core. I was intrigued by it all when we visited for RWA last year.

  9. I made a choice between RWA and just visiting with my daughter, Kate. We had a great time exploring. The street layout of the city in 1906 was about the same as it is now, but the buildings and neighborhoods were all different. Only a few places survived the quake and fire. Everything else, including those tall buildings, was destroyed It’s an amazing story and I plan to blog about it in more detail later.

  10. I love small-town settings in the peaceful Midwest, and the red rock area of rugged Arizona. Sometimes I think the setting can become almost a character of its own. but I hate pages and pages of description. Insert it gently, please. All of you fillies do it just right, BTW.

    Great cover, Elizabeth. Yummy.

  11. Thanks, Tanya. I love desert settings, too, have used them in several books. The red rock desert is so stark and dramatic and beautiful–complete with things that can stick you and bite you.

  12. Elizabeth,
    What a fabulous cover! You must be over the moon. And I love the time period and premise for your story!

    I’m not a person who enjoys a lot of description, so I try to flavor my stories with just enough to give the sense of place. Hopefully I succeed.:)

  13. Thanks for the backup, Cheryl. Wish I could’ve heard your workshop. One thing I love about writing historicals is the richness of setting. I find that harder to achieve in the few contemps I’ve done.

  14. To me, the setting is like an additional character. I know, in real life experience, the place has so much to do with how I respond to stimuli. When I fully explore the setting of a book, be it a real place or a created world, the sensory details are very important. I want to forget I’m reading and feel I’m living the book.

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