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:
locale. This could be a locked room in an Agatha Christie mystery, a town
such as Louise Penny’s Three Pines, or a trans-global network of countries
in a spy thriller such as the just released EXPATS by Chris Pavone.
overall feel and atmosphere of a book, which imbues a place with meaning
and emotion. That’s how John Updike’s short story “A&P” can be filled
with innocence undone, and in the Stephen King movie “The Mist” the market
is where all the mayhem takes place. Same place. Very different 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.
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.
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.
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: The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book
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