Setting the stage for success

Does reading a book ever motivate you to work harder for your dreams rather than just escape into them? I read a great book
this weekend by P.J. Alderman called Haunting Jordan. It’s a fun paranormal mystery set in Port Townsend, Washington (although it is given the fictional name of Port Chatham in the book). When I picked up the book, I hoped to enjoy escaping into it for a few hours. What I didn’t expect was to fall so deep into it that after reading “The End” I began to look online at historic
homes available for sale in Port Townsend. This in turn led to a dollar amount being set in my head of what I need to make income-wise to be able to afford one of those gorgeous historic homes. And that led to me hitting the keys with a whole new motivation for writing the next book and getting it out there. Wait! I thought I was just supposed to escape into fiction. In actuality, P.J. lit a fire under my hiney and made me excited to push onward and upward. Has this ever happened to you?

When I write a book, I believe a big part of my responsibility as GOD of my little world is to create a setting real enough
that readers feel transported to the story location. The trick is to bring the setting to life without letting the reader see
the behind-the-scenes work going on. I think of it as more than just one of those old west town storefronts. It’s like the stage
of a play all prepped with characterization tidbits. To pull this off, I have to learn everything I can about a place—the flora, the fauna, the scents, the sounds, the weather, and more.All five senses get involved. Fortunately, I know Deadwood (my
current series’ setting) well after spending many summers and some winters there. But what if you haven’t visited or lived
in a location where you want to set your story? How do you go about learning your setting well enough to fool the reader into
believing its real (and accurate). The internet? National Geographic shows? How?

Some of the reviews I’ve received about my series are from local South Dakotas (Deadwood area) who write that I nailed the setting and characters. These are some of my favorite reviews. Our books have to pass the test with locals as well as readers. Some days, that task scares the crap out of me. Other days, I enjoy the challenge. Can you think of any books you’ve read where the author did not get the setting right? Did it affect your reading experience? Stephen King wrote about a small town that neighbors my hometown in his book, The Stand. He was all wrong about the town, but I was so excited to see it in his book that I didn’t care (the name of the town is my maiden name and it was founded by my ancestors, so details didn’t matter on that one).

Happy writing and reading!


24 responses to “Setting the stage for success

  1. I, as an aspiring successful writer, agree about the setting. One of my favorite authors (besides Ann Charles) is Elizabeth George. I am re-reading her books, with the goal of discovering what it is that makes me love her stories. Her settings are full of smells, sights, sounds, small details. Though I’ve never been to England, I can feel like I have.

    You guys are so far ahead of me, but I’m working on it!

  2. Renelle, I love how you are reading her books again to analyze. I did that (and do it again periodically) with Dean Koontz’ book, Odd Thomas. He really brought that setting to life for me. Need to figure out just how he works his magic. Thanks for the kind words and sharing!


  3. I’m glad you liked Haunting Jordan, Ann! 🙂 And you’ve touched on one of my favorite topics! I pay a huge amount of attention to setting when I write my books.

    With my Chatham series, I tried to create that perfect small town that everyone would love to visit, then throw in a few dead bodies, lol. That’s because it’s a cozy series, and my readers expect to be entertained and spend time with my characters first and foremost, then have a bit of murder without any bloodshed on the side.

    In the case of my Columbia River thriller series, I took a much darker approach: I created a town that looks quaint and beautiful on the surface, but that beauty hides deadly undercurrents, both in terms of the treacherous nature of the Columbia River and the crime in the town.

    For both series, I did visit the towns, because they aren’t that far from where I live. But I also relied heavily on small press books and memoirs written by locals, local mythology, history books about the area, and my own reaction to how the towns affected me. In each chapter, I try to have setting impact my characters in some way.

    Setting is a very powerful tool in our writing arsenal, and I love using it! It’s interesting, by the way, that King totally missed it on the setting for The Stand. I never knew that, but I LOVE that book–it’s one of my favorites by him!


    • PJ,

      Thank you for talking more about the work you put into your setting. I just loved the 1st Port Chatham book and can’t wait to read the 2nd one. I also am looking forward to reading your Columbia River series. Your setting details really bring the places alive and make me want to join the community. Write faster! Fan are waiting. 🙂 –Ann

  4. Ann, you certainly worked your magic with Deadwood! I was very young the last time I passed through Deadwood (my Dad was a stop at every roadside attraction and/or small town type of traveler), but your books brought it back to me as if I were on tour again. Poor Renelle probably won’t find as much material from our home town. It was just a post-World War II suburb of Seattle and didn’t become a city until a few years ago. She may have to find a different locale for her stories – ha ha.

    • Jody, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the setting tidbits in Deadwood. That town really holds a special place in my heart, and I wanted to bring it (and the Black Hills) to life for readers. I hoped to romance readers with the setting along with the story. I appreciate your two cents on this one, Jody!


  5. Ann, both you and PJ are amazing at setting. I love it when it adds to the book, as it does in both of yours. If the name of the place is on the cover, it better! LOL

    • Thanks, Edie. P.J. did such a wonderful job of making me fall in love with the town and its history. I’m so excited to read Ghost Ship because I love the characters, but also because I love the town so much now.


  6. I’m all about setting. I like it best when the place has enough presence to feel like one of the main characters. This doesn’t require reams and reams of description, that tends to bog it down. For me, it’s more about bringing every sense into play. I want to have the scenes unrolling in my head like a movie (preferably in 3-D, surround sound and smell-o-vision). I want to be in it completely, and feel the world come alive.

    I like to walk the footsteps of my characters whenever possible, and I take tons of photos along the route. But when that’s impossible, I read, do research (travel blogs are great for personal insights), watch movies or shows set in the location and see what I can unearth on YouTube. I’ve found some suprisingly great and helpful stuff there.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Lisa, I hadn’t even thought of YouTube. How wonderful to have that resource at our fingers, too. When I wrote my book that took place in the Yucatan, I read books galore, including travel books and books by anthropologists and archaeologists who had lived amongst the people. My friends still talk about the food the characters ate. I swear, we were all salivating after reading the drafts (the mess tent in the story was the place of several settings where the characters all got together). Thanks for weighing in on this one!


  7. Ann, I’m so with you about setting – though I do tend to start with some real place and then make it up. I want the readers to be able to FEEL the place, for me it’s more about senses than description. And Stephen King’s The Stand is my favorite of his books – and I LOVED the miniseries which is impossible to find now. Why don’t they put it back on TV?


    • The Stand was such a great story with all of the different characters and travels. Incredible. I wonder if they plan to re-release the series in the future again and try to bring in more $$ to an audience that hasn’t seen or heard of it (next generation type of thing). My favs from Stephen are Salem’s Lot and Desperation. Excellent setting on those, too. 🙂 –Ann

    • Already are rereleasing… graphic novels now… sigh… downfall of the world those things…

  8. Just bought “A Killing Tide” on Kindle 🙂

    • Thanks Renelle! LOL, I just bought Ann’s Deadwood. I’ve had the sample in my TBR pile for several weeks, percolating its way to the top. It’s now the next in line for when I finish the current book I’m reading. –PJ

    • I had to wait to get my Kindle back from my MIL–I left it at her place after a long weekend there. She sent it to me (what a wonderful woman!! LOL). Now I can buy A Killing Tide and get that one on my Kindle, too. Sweet!

  9. I can say settings affect me. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to visit the British Isles. A bit of the red head in me wanting to find ‘part’ of my roots. I’m a mutt, English, Scottish, Irish (and the screaming Nordic blue eyes say Viking) but we’ve traced England and a Prime Minister to E1 (might explain the hair… she supposedly had one of her bastards with a PM)
    In my late teens, early 20’s I stumbled across Johanna Lindsey. WOW… all her historics about England, and the Mallory clan (and all the rakes that reside there). Hyde Park, taking the cures in Bath, the Tower in London. It all made me crave England more. Then there were the books (not to mention videos and movies) that showed Stonehenge. WOW again. The free ‘spirit’ in me craved even more knowledge of these beautiful, historic places. To literally walk through living history, in the footsteps of writers (published unlike me) just seemed like something I had to do.
    In my 30’s, when I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, I decided it was time to take that once in a lifetime trip (and I’d love to go back if I had the chance). I took a 2nd job just to pay for that, and packed my bags. My blood raced, and my pulse quickened the second I got off the plane. My skin tingled to be there. To take the trains, to see all the places I’d only ‘seen’ in books before… this really was the trip of a lifetime.
    I felt spiritual peace and joy like no other when I saw Stonehenge. I took the waters at Bath, and did actually feel better the rest of my trip (might have been just in my head). I was HIGH for weeks, months. So, yes, I have to say a setting can do things for you.
    Not to even mention that a trip to Baton Rouge, and tours of haunted houses, along with old ‘old wives tales’ helped to inspire one of my stories too. Books are fantasies yes. It’s when we take those to make our own realities that life gets really fun.

    • What a wonderful reply to my setting questions. You gave me goosebumps. I, too, have daydreamed about England (I’m a German-mixed mutt, so not for family history reasons, just because I grew up reading Harlequin Presents novels and so many took place in England). I leaped at the opportunity to go there in person finally and smell the smells, see the countryside, meet the people. Books have played a huge role in me taking trips to several locations, and I escape into the books to travel often. Setting is so important in stories. I love it when it’s done so well that I start looking up travel costs to visit a location after finishing the book. Thank you for your thoughts on this!


      • Trae Cissell

        Yeah… wee bit of German here too… that’s the shepherd in me, always bringing my own little ‘family’ together. Few close family… LOT of close family/friends… if it gives you any clue of my settings thing… in less than TWO weeks… during my trip, I shot close to 1800 pictures… not all were good… but it was constantly snapping out of windows, wanting to capture the visuals… Always the romantic reading Wuthering Heights (not my fave book) but thoughts of Heathcliff on the moors… (I even have a Scottish Laird in one of my books, a rake who’s cursed and captured in a ring, who comes back in the modern day to walk the Highlands…
        I joke with friends sometimes that I’m such a ‘dude’… cause the visual part often helps me.. a descriptive is one thing… SEEING that is always better…

  10. I have another comment on settings… I’ve already penned (part of) several books… and with only one exception, I set mine in and around KY where I live… there’s so much rich history (Civil War) to pull from, and Louisville where I live, has so much that can appeal to the tourist crowd, what with the track, niche’y lil restaurants, and amazing bark park (I tend to have Poochers too) and it’s what I KNOW… Like Evanovich and her Trenton setting… I always think writing what you know and grow up with is an asset… because you’re not pulling a place out of mid air…

  11. Great discussion, and I’m sorry to be late to the party.

    I love books that ‘take me there’ with great descriptions of settings. As a writer, though, I find writing for some settings can be a challenge,especially when it’s not an urban setting where you can use the names of buildings and such. When I wrote my first mystery, Endangered, (which will be published in December), I discovered just how bad my geologic vocabulary was. It takes place in Utah canyons and caverns, and how many ways can you describe rocks? It was a challenge.

    Now I’m working on a manuscript that involves a lot of scuba scenes, and I’m constantly trying to come up with more ways to describe undersea scenery. How many ways can you describe water? Arg–Why do I do this to myself? I do it because I love the wilderness and I spend a lot of time there, but sometimes it’s a hard setting to put into words.

    • Pam, how many ways can you describe water? LOL! Ugh, that’s tough. However, you will undoubtedly pull it off and people will finish your scuba book with a desire to learn how to scuba. 🙂

  12. Settings are one of the most important things in a book. And often one of the most over/under used portions of a novel. It’s a tricky line to walk to get it just right. Enough description of the background to draw the readers in but not so much that it overwhelms the characters. (unless, of course, the settings is the character :P)

    Excellent post Ann!


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