Creating Vivid Settings: 7 Memorable Tips & Techniques
On July 29, 2017 | 2 Comments | Uncategorized |

In The Hemingway Files, some brief yet important plot moments occur in or around a temple compound high up in the Japan Alps.  Because of the importance of those moments, I wanted them to take place in a setting of unusual natural and man made beauty, as a symbolic setting of almost otherworldy charm and luminosity.  I will ask my readers to determine for themselves the extent to which I succeeded in that; but I can tell you that setting, in that case, was intrinsic to the plot and overall narrative arc, in so many ways.  Setting can matter as much as — or sometimes even more than — the plot itself.

How do master writers create that special sense of place and setting that marks their works?  Think of how much emotion and content a writer can squeeze out of just three sentences about setting, as in this selection from Dickens’ Oliver Twist:

The public-houses, with gas-lights burning inside, were already open. By degrees, other shops began to be unclosed, and a few scattered people were met with. Then, came straggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey-carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with livestock or whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town.

Or see how much is evoked in just two sentences in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead:

The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t.

Or note how much one feels in just ONE sentence in Willa Cather’s masterpiece  My Antonia:

While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything.

No doubt, my own craft of fiction has been shaped by sentences like these, from some of my favorite literary masterpieces, which provide wonderful travel experiences in a vicarious way, and leave me a strong sense of having visited for a time some foreign space.

This sense of “foreignness” might occur, even if it’s “only” Iowa or Nebraska.  It’s different, and the language adds a solemn sacramental quality to even a train or a couple walking down the sidewalk.  It’s heightened, and thus seen through a new lens.  The foreignness might be more historical than far away, as in my countless readings of Willa Cather’s novels, set not all that far distance wise, in places like Nebraska, Colorado, or New Mexico, but very, very far away in terms of years and culture.  Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, set in Iowa, allows the reader to settle down and rest for a spell among a small cast of characters that seem at once familiar, but also somewhat distanced.  Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was composed specifically as a kind of homage to his early times learning to pilot on the river, and contains some of the most brilliant prose of a great author’s career, in describing such mundane objects as a sunset or a flooded plain.

But what about the truly foreign:  lands we’ve never visited, and maybe never will.  Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard takes us deep into the Himalaya, and deep into its exotic and lush cultural setting.  Regarding Japan, I’m reminded of the luminous accounts by writers like Alex Kerr, Pico Iyer, or their great forebear, Lafcadio Hearn:  simply trying to follow their lead has been a worthy yet difficult challenge.  My hope is that the reader feels the splendor of the Japanese style tea room where Jack meets with Sensei; experiences the beauty of the gardens or the Zen temple, high above the Japan Alps; and senses the strangeness of visiting cities completely foreign to them, whether it’s Manila, Venice, or even Bloomington, Indiana.

I’ve been gratified to hear from many of my readers that The Hemingway Files is successful at giving a strong sense of Japan as a setting:  a powerful and convincing “sense of place,” as some critics have called it.  This is gratifying for several reasons.  First, I love Japan and want to share my love with all my readers.  Japan is a land of huge contrasts and historical concerns for the shared environment.  In The Hemingway Files, I mention Morse’s book on Japanese Homes: the distinct ways that Japanese people design and keep their homes, which contrasts sharply with the American style.

And as for such seemingly different phenomena as gardens, restaurants, and mass transit systems, there is always something peculiarly Japanese about all these things worth noting.

I know I’ve been decisively influenced by the Japanese style: including architectural, artistic, and literary styles.  Ezra Pound, for example, who plays a central role in the historical plot of The Hemingway Files, loved haiku and based some of his theoretical musings about literature on his insights into Japanese writing and poetry.  American modernism was deeply influenced by these styles, in my opinion, and in ways that have frequently evaded notice.  So I often attempt to mimic this style throughout the book, in describing certain scenes or locations.  I even attempt a sort of haiku-like description in a few pages, particularly in the opening letter from Jack.

Finally, one might ask:  what are some tips for writing memorable settings?  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  Work HARD at crafting sentences that sound luxurious and luminous when READ OUT LOUD.
  2.  Make one objective of your writing to be that the story feels at times like a tiny travelogue.  In that sense: write about settings you know well: and in particular, the specific details you remember as being peculiar to that place
  3.  Evoke all of the senses!  Smell and sound, in particular, usually get left out a lot.
  4. Without being pedantic: consider how aspects of setting are symbolically important to your work.  For example, in the clip about from Robinson: water is itself an important symbol throughout the novel.
  5. Demonstrate how settings change over time: both naturally, but also in terms of how the characters view the setting.
  6.  Don’t forget the weather: and again, without being overbearing, consider how the weather is of importance to the plot or characters.  A famous example is Hemingway’s use of the rain and mud in A Farewell to Arms — always reflective of the narrator’s state of mind.
  7.  FINALLY: think about those whose work has been inspirational, and look for the features of that writer’s work that work best, and why.  I’d love to hear back from any readers of this, regarding those books which, in their recollection, succeed well at creating a strong and nuanced sense of place.