Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ready, Setting, Go!

By Lisa Karon Richardson

The best writers have a knack for bringing, not just their characters to life, but the places in which they set the story. They make me smell the salty brine of the sea or the yeasty goodness of fresh bread. They make me feel the breeze whipping my hair into my eyes or the crunch of summer-dry grass underfoot.

Using description so that it enhances a story without overwhelming it, is definitely an art I’m still learning. My problem is typically that I don’t describe the story world enough for readers to visualize my location. I can see it plain as day, but I haven’t necessarily translated that to the page.

I’ve come to realize that setting has a lot to do with whether a story will sell. And I don’t mean how well the description is handled by the author. It’s become a truism that the Christian market is reluctant to buy anything set outside the United States. If a story is set somewhere else, it must at least have American characters.

This prohibition (if you can call it that) boggles my mind since I am personally fascinated with other cultures and settings. I stand flabbergasted when I hear from people that they only want to read what they already know. I love to be truly transported to some place and immersed in a new world. But I also realize that I’m not the norm, they are.

Recently it seems that the door has begun to crack open a bit. Stories set in England are becoming popular. Regency especially seems to finally be getting a toe-hold in the Christian market. It’ not such a great leap since we share a language and similar culture.

Beyond England I’d be hard pressed to think of a half-dozen stories set in other places in Europe and that number dwindles rapidly if the setting goes so far afield as Africa or Asia.

What settings intrigue you? Do you prefer the familiar or the exotic? Is there any setting that would make a book an auto-buy for you?


  1. I used to go more for setting (UK, preferably) than I do now, so I'm not sure I'm a good one to ask. It's mostly the story blurb on the back that interests me .

    I hope the market continues to change!

  2. I'm kind of similar, Deb. I don't pay as much attention to setting as I once did. But there are a few that make me want to snatch them off the shelf. And not just place, but time period.

  3. The more exotic the better for me, as I mentioned yesterday. Medieval is an auto buy for me. I also pick up a lot of Biblical fiction.

    I've learned a few tricks for weaving in setting organically. One, start each scene with some sensory details to place the reader firmly into the head and even body of the POV character. Two, never give long passages of description. Always give setting details in the context of action and dialogue.

    I'm reading Lady in the Mist right now. Setting is perfectly woven, so alive. The whole book has a misty feel to it.

  4. i like exotic places like Africa or Pacific Islands, etc. - but then i've traveled some, so i can picture those exotic places in my mind's eye.

    i do know people who have never left the county they were born and have difficulty relating to anything beyond their own personal experiences - perhaps they are the reason behind the "prohibition"?

  5. One exotic setting I devoured as a teen was the description of India M.M. Kaye created in "The Far Pavilions." Her mystery novels all featured unusual locales, as well.

    Christian publishing's reluctance to use settings outside America goes right back to what Dina said yesterday in her last comment, and what I posted about on my own blog today... Christians want the familiar and the comfortable. At least that's what Christian publishing, Christian music, Christian art, and the general state of the church would have us believe.

    No more ranting. Off to work.

  6. What Niki said. M.M. Kaye was a master of the setting and giving you a feel. Love, love, love her books and read and reread them. Love books set in India, especially during the Raj. France is an automatic sell for me since I went to school there in college for a bit, and Portugal because I just love that country, though I only know of about three books set there--Elizabeth cadell, Jane Aiken Hodge, and Valerie Sherwood.

    England, of course, but Scotland is a real yes for me.

    Setting will also turn me off from a book. The blurb better be really good if it's set in Texas, Kansas, pretty much anywhere between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. I'm not a level land lover despite having lived in Illinois, Iowa, and Texas.

    To break into the CBA, I had to compromise. Lady in the Mist was supposed to be set in Cornwall originally. I knew that wouldn't sell, so I moved a few things around. Glad you like that setting, Dina. You helped with it plus all the time I spent there when dating a guy in the Navy stationed down there back in my misbegotten youth.

  7. Yes, between Laurie Alice and a new book I've been critiquing for Roseanna, I'm starting to think I could handle writing a book in America if I could set it on the East Coast.

  8. If the reason is because people are reluctant to read books set in other countries, that is so incredibly sad. But publishers have undoubtedly done market research and know the numbers. Which still makes me sad.

    Mostly, I buy a book for the story and author. But I'll buy most anything set in France. One thing I can tell you; there aren't enough France books out there. I'm trying to make up for it by writing my own. ;-)

    Dina, I love your tips on setting. Very nice. I'm tucking those away.

  9. Good tips, Dina. And I'm totally with you on enjoying exotic locales. Have you read any of the Seven Wonders books by T.L.Higley? I read the Guardian of the Flame set in ancient Greece and really liked it. I know she has a couple others out by now set in places like Egypt and Rhodes.

  10. I think you're right DebH. People may just not know what they're missing since they've never tried to step outside their comfort zone.

    On the other hand, it could just be that they like the familiar because they can better identify with the characters and situations.

  11. Niki, I love the era of the British Raj. I know it wasn't so great for teh Indians, but it will forever have a romantic glow for me. My favorite stories as a little girl were the Secret Garden and the Little Princess. Both stories about english girls who had grown up in India and come hoe to a cold and alien England and had to find their way.

    I'll happily take up your soap box regarding complacency and the desire to be comfy at all times. It's not confined to the church, but a problem endemic to American society. Maybe all society. Part of the human condition that longs for the path of least resistance. To have our assumptions and beliefs confirmed rather than challenged.

  12. Laurie Alice, it takes a lot for me to be interested in a prairie story too. Although I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder as a pre-teen.

    The changes you made to the setting in Lady in the Mist were seamless. You did a great job, for sure! I have a review on my personal blog. But I'll say it here too. If you haven't read Lady in the Mist, you don't want to miss this book! Laurie Alice is such a wonderful writer it mesmerizes you. Run to the store, hop on Amazon, just getthe book!

  13. Dina, what about the west coast? And isn't your sisterhood story set in the US? Or are you thinking historical?

    I've got three east coast stories now. And I do mean coast. They're all within minutes of the sea! Jen and I are working on one now that is set on the west coast. It's just the middle, I seem to have a hard time with! Really, I just haven't had any ideas that lends itself to the small town America setting.

  14. Suzie, have you read Golden Parson's In the Shadow of the Sun King? Loved that book!

  15. You're right, Lisa. My contemporary is set right here in my home town and I loved it. I'm just not as into historical research as most of you ladies, but I am well versed in Pennsylvania and Virginia history. I do like the West Coast, just don't know it as well.

  16. Yes, Lisa, I love Golden's books. Oh my. They are rich in detail and characterization. They have special place on my keeper shelf.

  17. Great conversation, ladies. I love the British Raj setting as much as I love curried dishes! We get the familiar with the exotic. I can't wait for Christine Lindsey's book to come out.

    Loved the Secret Garden, Lisa. I'll have to re read that.

  18. Dina, I'm far more familiar with teh east coast too. And it's a whole lot closer for research trips if I get really lucky.

  19. I've read the first few chapters of Christine's book, and it was so good, Deb. I'm so looking forward to it coming out!

  20. Back again. I actually got to read Christine's entire book. It's awesome. I'm sure you India fans will love it.

  21. Wonderful post and discussion, Lisa, and Dina's tips are great, too. You're right: Laurie Alice does a fantastic job of weaving the setting into the story. I am taking notes as I read, that's for sure!

    I am not particularly picky about settings -- I just want a good story -- although I definitely enjoy exotic settings in addition to my usual England-set stuff. I remember being in high school and learning that Agatha Christie had written a mystery set in ancient Egypt, and I didn't delay in scouring the library for it.

    I have years-old novella anthologies set in Israel, Germany, and Italy...I suspect the pendulum will swing back at some point.

  22. Good point, Susie. A lot of things are cyclical, like historicals being "out" for awhile. Maybe foreign settings will come back in. Actually I wonder when they went out, maybe 9/11 had something to do with it? Anyone have any ideas?

  23. When I was in my early 20s, I read CBA fiction with any setting. Linda Chaikin, Brodie and Brock Thoene, Gilbert Morris.

    Now I tend to limit my reading to US or UK settings . . . in other words, CBA sweetspots. Well, except Amish. Hmm. I rather enjoyed Vannetta Chapman's A Simple Amish Christmas.

    I need to ponder for a moment what I've been reading lately.

    Authors I know, most of which are historical romance authors. Laurie Alice Eakes, Julie Lessman, Jamie Carie, Julie Klassen, Mary Connealy, Melanie Dickerson, Karen Witemeyer. I know I'm forgetting someone. Sorry.

    I'm looking forward to Lisa's Colonial Courtship anthology because it's outside my usual setting. Now that I think about it, my Scots novella is also outside my usual setting.

    Of course, I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction. I wonder if that's a bad thing for a fiction writer to do?

    Oh, I did read Alpha Redemption by P.A. Baines and liked it, maybe because it was so unique in how it was told. Looking forward to the ACFW bookclub discussion on that one. :-)

  24. Gina, it can be all bad for a fiction writer to read non-fiction. Ya gotta research somehow. And even if it's not technically research it probably is. I.e. you write about spiritual themes so while a book on Christianity may not seem like research, if it changes the way you think or perceive people, then it is, because it is inevitable that will come out in your writing.
    (See how neatly I was able to justify that! You should see me when I'm really trying to get away with something!)

    Actually the author's you listed have a pretty diverse group of settings. Medieval Germany to 19th century prairies to Boston and Laurie Alice's next book set in regency England.

  25. Lisa, I haven't been able to read the last book yet. But when I do, I'm going to read the first two again, just to immerse myself in them. I so totally loved both books. I'm waiting for a nice long weekend where I can just immerse myself in all three books. We might have snow this weekend, so that may be the perfect time.

  26. England, Scotland, Australia. But I need a pretty good mystery/suspense plot and of course a romance to keep me interested. And pyramids. I like pyramids and I love Elizabeth Peters.:)

  27. Hmmm... I wonder where Canada fits in this.

    After writing 4 books set in the American west, I've switched to my native prairie province and I'm loving the experience. A lot easier to research and I'm discovering so much about the province I live in.

    I used to want to read tales set in exotic locales, but now find the setting doesn't matter as much as the characters. I tend to stay loyal to authors, too, and will follow an author to wherever she sets her books.

    Good post, Lisa.

    Anita Mae.

  28. Suzie, I think you just described the perfect weekend!

  29. Weren't at least some of Janette Oke's books set in Canada, Anita. I think CBA has at least been open to our northern neighbor for a long time!

  30. Jill, you and me. Separated at birth?
    I adore the Elizabeth Peters books. I know Lisa reads them too. They've made me want to go to Egypt more than ever. But again, I think it's the mystery or suspense that's adds the right combo.

    I'm considering the Caribbean for my third book in this series I'm writing but I'll have to discuss with agent/editor if I get that far before I jump into those warm waters.

    I think with MaryLu Tyndall, Kaye Dacus and Kathleen Y'Barbo using the Carib, I'm hoping it's not an automatic no for me. I have an idea for a nice spooky plantation in mind.

    PS. Anita, I'm not sure about Canada, come to think of it, I don't see it used much in settings.

    And a lot of people love Anne of Green Gables, so...

  31. Ooh, Deb. I love the idea of a spooky plantation. If not the actual Caribbean, maybe it could be set somewhere in Florida.

  32. East Coast, Dina? Does this mean we aren't going to collaborate on that one in Egypt? ;)

    One way around the exotic setting taboo is to make the characters American. As a reader, it's easier for me to get a feel for an unusual setting is I'm seeing it through the eyes of someone with a similar background to mine.

    As a writer, I'm afraid I've tried a few "hard sell" settings. And one look at my rejection folder proves it! ("I have a few concerns since this isn't one of our popular time periods ..." "period is virtually unsaleable in either the ABA or CBA ..." You get the idea.)

  33. CJ, I'm still open to Egypt, especially if my series with Middle Eastern characters works out.

  34. Anita, I too stay loyal to authors. Until she releases a dud. Then I'm hesitant about buying her next one. Of course, I usually break down and either buy the next one or at least check it out from the library.

    I read probably one fiction novel a month . . . on average.

    Non-fiction, two or three. Mostly spiritual stuff since Lisa mentioned that. Right now I'm re-reading Waking the Dead by John Elderadge. It's amazing how it relates to the new series I started writing.

    This weekend is fiction-focused. Lady in the Mist by Laurie Alice Eakes, Found in Translation by Roger Bruner, Murder in Plain Sight by Marta Perry, and (if I get the others read) Kaydee by Penny Zeller.

    Oh, I really need to read the first two chapters in 10 Things a Minister's Wife Needs to Know.

    Great post, Lisa.

    Great discussion, ladies!

  35. CJ, I'm with you on that rejection file! I'll read just about anything set in Egypt. Especially if it's turn-of-the-last-century. I've been primed like Deb and Jilly with Elizabeth Peters's books!

  36. Secret Garden and Little Princess. I've actually been thinking about reading those again. Loved them as a child and my sister read them to her kids, who loved them. timeless. And what I've read of Christine's book makes me want more and sad she didn't get a bigger publisher, but maybe we can put Whitefire on the map with Christine's book.

    Someone at Baker called Lady a bit of a gothic. Guess what I cut my teeth on growing up--Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters... Yep, if I write with a Gothic feel, why not. And I love Jane Eyre. I was so going for the gothic with the mist theme, which is setting and symbolism. Oh, yes, Mignon Eberhart. Very old writer, but romantic suspense with gothic feel to them. Got to have that suspense element. As I warn people, don't expect Jane Austen when you pick up a Regency from me.

  37. Obviously from the number of comments, setting is important to readers. To me a book must come alive for lots of reasons, and setting is one of the most important. I love to see vivid characters against a vivid backdrop. I guess that's why some of my favorite movies are White Countess set in China, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Painted Veil set in China again. I guess I like the exotic. And I devoured MM Kayes'books.

  38. Really well done, Lisa! Your writing is so clear!

    I loved Michael Phillips' Angel Harp, set in Scotland.
    Liz Curtis Higgs also writes about Scotland... I guess I really like the Celtic vibe...

  39. Cheryl,
    on Sat. March 5 I'm doing a backlist of Celtic fiction. I had a good response and found a lot of new authors.

  40. I love pretty much anything set in Scotland too, Cheryl. I'll take Ireland, Wales or Cornwall too at a pinch!
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  41. You can take my imagination anywhere seeing as how my passport has soooo many blank pages. And I don't need American characters, as long as it is written in English. But I do enjoy writing with an accent!


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