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.”