Jenny Milchman: The Importance of Setting

During the month of May, several authors have been invited to help kick off my mystery trivia book tour. Today my guest is literary suspense writer, Jenny Milchman. Read what Jenny has to say about the importance of setting in a novel. Welcome, Jenny.

Whither Will I Roam: The Use of Setting in Your Novel

It might be too much to say that setting is my favorite element of a mystery or suspense novel, but it isn’t far off. Lest this be making some readers scratch their heads, asking, “What about plot twists? Great characters? Hair-raising suspense?” I would like to suggest that to a certain extent, setting encapsulates all of these things, and more.

Let me elaborate a bit.

There are two kinds of things we’re talking about when we talk about setting:

Since stories are all about mood and emotion, setting quickly rises up the ranks of factors it’s essential to get right.

Take the above example of a supermarket. How does an author change a mundane place to one that belongs in a horror novel? Well, he or she might start by mentioning details in a way that’s just a little left of center from how we normally see them. Perhaps the steaks are glistening in the meat case. Maybe that door at the back of the store is swinging. Or a woman is reaching for a high up box when her ankle suddenly twists and she falls.

These are details of setting.

Setting is not just where a scene is set, but how it’s set. When a family departs for points unknown—a new home, say, or a summer vacation—the setting may be charming, beatific, or pastoral. But if it’s a crime or suspense novel, the reader knows trouble awaits and so the setting becomes much more than just its physical location.

Some of my favorite novels are ones where the setting is a character in and of itself. The place is featured in many books by one author, and so the reader gets to experience it through the prism of different characters and different stories.

Stephen King achieves this brilliantly with Castle Rock, and he has a long literary history behind him: William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, for instance.

Mr. King starts his novel CUJO with this line:

“Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.”

Now that’s setting.

Jenny Milchman is a literary suspense writer from New Jersey. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, is forthcoming from Ballantine in February 2013. Her short story 'The Closet' will be published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Another short story ‘The Very Old Man’ has been an Amazon bestseller, and the short work 'Black Sun on Tupper Lake' will appear in the anthology ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II.

Jenny is the Chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Authors Program, the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated internationally, and hosts the Made It Moments forum on her blog. Jenny co-hosts the literary series Writing Matters, and teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop.

Thanks, Jenny,
That first line in Cujo still sends chills up my spine! King is a master of creating settings that come to life.

Join me on Friday at Marilyn Meredith's site. And read what happens when 3 mystery and suspense masters meet behind closed doors.
Post a comment on my blog by June 1 and your name will entered in a drawing for one of my trivia books. Three names will be drawn, one for each book.
My three mystery trivia books have been updated and reissued by LL-Publications : The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book, The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book, and The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book.