Wild settings and how to create them
I’m currently listening on Audible to a book called Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets. It is told from the perspectives of two characters Pru Hathaway and Amy Ray Latour and the novel is set in the Colorado Wilderness. Amy Ray disappears while going on an elk hunt on her own, and Pru is the ranger caught up in the search for her.
While I haven’t got far enough to come to a conclusion on the book (although I am enjoying it so far), the concept of setting almost becoming a character in the book is particularly evident in Breaking Wild. The ice, the snow, the pinion trees, the rock falls and the cougar caches all become intimately woven in the story, so that the backdrop moves to centre stage. You begin to feel the cold, hear the snapping branches of the approaching lion and see the coyote pups gambolling in the snow. And as a writer, that is quite a difficult thing to achieve.
In my novel, The Punishment, which is set in a frontier town in France bordering the Pyrenees and Spain, the rural lifestyle and “Frenchness” of the environment were crucial aspects of the novel. This was particularly relevant as the book is set during wartime and therefore the escape routes into the mountains a key part of the plot. People were hungry during the time and desperate, and the changing seasons and impenetrability of the harsh landscape to the south only serve to emphasise this more.
The same can be said of Breaking Wild whose focus on isolation, highlights Amy Ray’s emotions as she recalls the wrong she has done in her life and considers her possible death.
But how can writers depict a real setting more accurately? Here are some ideas:
1. Describe a settting you know – for example, as a South African, I am not all that used to snow but I know the savannah well having spent a great deal of my childhood in the bush. If you can’t do this, research, research, research.
2. Use maps (Google is great).
3. Use photos to make your descriptions accurate.
4. Depending on the character, use directions (north, south-east). But don’t use directions for a person who sees where they go or are in terms of landmarks (the corner shop, the barrier, the pharmacy, the statue of Ghandi).
5. Embrace detail – a ladybird, a drop of dew, a speck of dust, haze.
6. Use all your readers’ senses, not just their eyes. How, for instance, does the dusty air taste? How do acacias smell? What does the traffic sound like?
7. Use specifics – a particular flower, a peeling road sign that gives more than just a name (age, direction, era).
8. Make the setting serve a purpose, not just be a background. Why, for instance, is the setting important to the character? Why is the setting hostile/comforting? And to whom?
9. Don’t drone on. Setting is wonderful, but if it doesn’t highlight the character or move the plot forward, you may well be boring the reader.
10. Visit the site of your story if you can, and make it as real as possible through your own or others’ experience. In my own writing, visiting a scene has often triggered development in my plot.
What other tips do you have for “writing a setting”? Let me know!