It’s the middle of October. If you’re a writer aspiring to crank out 50,000 words (or more) during November for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), there’s no time like the present to tune up your writing engine and get prepared. So far, we’ve talked about letting our curiosity lead us to intriguing character ideas, and about how our characters’ desires and flaws can help us develop compelling plots. Now, it’s time to consider the world in which our characters will live—the setting—and how we’ll describe it.
NaNoWriMo Prep: Week 3
It’s the writer’s job to transport the reader, and part of what makes that possible is a strong sense of place. Some settings are so vivid that they become an almost living part of the story. Would To Kill a Mockingbird have the same authenticity without Harper Lee’s detailed deep South setting? Lee chose a setting close to her heart, basing the small town of Maycomb on her own hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. As mundane as the locale may seem, Lee’s world leaps off the page:
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. . . . Somehow, it was hotter then. . . . Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. . . . A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. . .”
Instantly, we get a sense of where we are. We feel the heat, and we understand the long, languorous days with nowhere to go and no money to spend. In just one short paragraph, we’ve been taken to somewhere else.
John Steinbeck also creates a vivid setting in the opening of Cannery Row:
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen’ and he would have meant the same thing.”
Large-scale factors like geographical location, season, climate, and culture (the deep South, summer, hot, rural, poor) inform your narrative; intimate details (men with wilted collars, ladies like soft tea cakes) bring it to life. Although not every novel has a setting that plays a dominant role in the story, no novel is complete without descriptions that invoke the senses and make the characters’ stage seem vibrantly real.
Practice using your five senses
To prep for your NaNoWriMo novel, practice writing sensory details that invoke a sense of place. Whether you’re at home or out in the wide world, pay close attention to your surroundings and be acutely aware of your five senses. Mentally or with a notebook in hand record what you experience. Start with the basic sense itself. Let’s say you’re entering a coffee shop. The very basic senses you experience might be:
I smell coffee. I see customers. I hear the cappuccino machine.
Now, take those details deeper. As Harper Lee did with her description of wilted collars and ladies like tea cakes, can you describe the coffeeshop more intimately?
The nutty aroma of breakfast blend wafts out the open door, drawing customers into the warm, dim recesses of Sacred Grounds. Inside, men and women hunker over steaming mugs, hands cupped around their rims, the better to breathe in the rich vapors. Behind the bar, the cappuccino machine hisses and clanks as the barista steams milk into a frothy foam.
Now, our coffee shop has a name. (And you want a caramel macchiato. You’re welcome!) We know that inside it’s warm, dim, and aromatic. We see customers bent over steaming mugs, we hear the hiss and clank of the cappuccino machine, and we see the barista frothing milk. Our coffee shop can become a real place in our reader’s mind because we’ve painted a word picture to bring it to life. It may not be Maycomb, Alabama, but we’ve set the stage for a scene nonetheless.
This week, start paying attention to the types of sensory details that will help make your setting seem real. Practice writing descriptions that use your five senses. Whether setting plays a large role in your narrative or not, every story needs to be anchored with a sense of place—the elements of setting—through details that make your novel’s world come to life.