I have a love-hate relationship with scenes that establish setting of the story. I find these scenes the hardest to write, but also the most rewarding. When I write them well, my readers tell me that they feel as if they are there, perched somewhere in the scene itself, having a bird-eye view of the action. They can visualize the scene, experience it along with the characters.
Setting is the context in which a story or scene occurs and includes the time, place, and social environment. Just as a photograph has a foreground and a background, so does a story. The main characters and their actions form the foreground. The time and place of the events, and the social environment surrounding them, form the background. People exist in a particular time and place. Where my characters live can contribute to their personalities, values, attitudes, and even their problems. My story’s setting can have great impact on the people in my story, how they react, and what they do.
To create effective settings, I use a combination of relying on my imagination to visualize the setting and, and when possible, experience a place that can inspire my writing.
To create the setting in my novel for The Talking Drum Bookstore and Cultural Center, I thought back to the year I spent renting a room in a lovely Victorian house in the Dorchester section of Boston. The mahogany bannister that my main character Sydney runs her hands over the first time she’s in her new home and business location is the bannister in the Victorian. The ornate flourishes around the fireplace, the claw-foot bathtub, and the old-fashioned kitchen with character are inspired by the real-life features in that house.
The scenes in my main character Omar’s village in Senegal, were drawn largely from what I saw on a business trip to South Africa, when I toured villages and townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I also got help from books I borrowed from the library, including young adult pictures books with photographs of Senegalese villages.
Scenes that set the stage for the environment of the characters take nearly as much research as the story itself. They key is doing the heavy-duty work of creating effective scenes so that they seem effortless to the reader.