Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Lady Janies Have a Conversation about Setting.

Cynthia: Every now and then, we Lady Janies plan to have a little craft talk. . .

Jodi: I love crafts! Let me get my yarn and knitting needles and I’ll be right back!.

Brodi: I suck at crafts. I don’t even own a glue gun.

Cynthia: No, no, no, you guys (er, ladies). I don’t mean a craft talk like popsicle sticks and glitter. I mean a craft talk like CRAFT, like the writing craft, like how we do the writing that we do.

Jodi: Oh right. Writing.

Brodi: Ah, yes. Glue guns.

Cynthia: So this time we’re going to talk about SETTING. As in, how does one write about setting? How do you use setting in a novel?

Jodi: I actually really love writing setting. I’d describe characters’ surroundings all day if you let me.

Brodi: (Please nobody let her). I would rather write dialogue. Setting is hard for me! But I learned to love it by preferring to hate it but not being able to write a book without it. :)

Cynthia: I love writing about setting too! Maybe a little too much. . . I can get carried away with the setting. So, let’s go around and talk about how we’ve used setting in the previous novels we’ve written, and what we learned from that, and then we can talk about how we wrote about the setting in MY LADY JANE.

When I was first learning how to write I didn’t use setting at all. I was scared of it. I didn’t think anybody would be interested in the places I knew well enough to write about. And because of this, most of my early attempts at stories felt a little lifeless. It was like my characters didn’t have enough atmosphere to breathe. The first time I ever wrote a story with Idaho as the setting, which was a place close to my heart, everybody reacted with such enthusiasm that I began to finally understand the impact that writing a good setting can have on a piece of writing. After that I paid pretty close attention to setting. By the time I wrote UNEARTHLY thinking about the setting was a vital part of my process.

Jodi: I find that I really use setting to set the mood of the entire scene. I like to make setting in my book reflect what the character is feeling by choosing things she would notice if she were feeling happy or sad or melancholy, and describing them in a way that reflects her mood. So if she’s sad, she’d probably notice . . . um . . . maybe starved, pathetic squirrels with no nut stash for the winter. But if she’s happy, she’d probably notice a kitten or something.

No kittens were harmed in the taking of this picture. 
Cynthia: Yep, happy people definitely see kittens! I do this too, to an extent, although sometimes I try to do the opposite, for contrast. Like I’ll write a beautiful moment into an ugly place or have a terrible moment happen in a really beautiful place. That’s fun.

Brodi: I love the advice I once got, which was to imagine someone walking along a sidewalk, and what that person notices depended on who that person is. A gardener might notice grass and flowers. A child might notice cracks in the cement, and jump over them. An architect might notice the buildings along the street. The point of view of the setting is a way to add layers to your character.  

Jodi: So what about how we approached the setting in MY LADY JANE? Was writing setting in this book different from the others you’ve written?

In MY LADY JANE, I actually found myself writing less setting! I think because the narrator voice did so much of the work to set the mood. I found that I used setting mainly to sketch the immediate surroundings and moved on from there. (Though sometimes I definitely had to go back and cut the mundane things I tend to add to my early drafts. Yes, Jodi, the bedroom probably has a bed.)

Cynthia: Hee hee. I agree. I think the setting in the first draft was pretty England-in-the-movies in my head.

Brodi: But then we actually went to England. I thought it was going to be a “research” trip, with air quotes, meaning less “research” and more “trans-continental party.” But it turned out to be an actual research trip. Or more like a RESEARCH RESEARCH ALL-THE-RESEARCH trip. Fish and chips on the side.

Jodi: I think the Genuine English Setting that most affected me was Bradgate Park (which is where Jane Grey grew up). Or the Tower of London (where she died). Or the fudge.

Brodi: Mmmmmmm. The fudge. I loved that setting.

I also loved the stark contract between Jane’s home of Bradgate park (now a gorgeous wilderness) and Gifford’s home of Dudley (now a creepy zoo.)

Cynthia: Yeah, our trip to England was when the details really started to feel alive for me. I mean, we were right there, standing where our characters had stood, seeing what they had seen. It felt so special and emotional.

Jodi: Someone cried.

Cynthia: *raises hand* *points at other two*

But what we also got from the trip was just these wonderful little details that could find their way into our novel. Like the way the trees looked at Bradgate. Or the rolling hills there. Or the deer.

Jodi, reverently: The same deer that Jane saw.

Jane fed these deer. To repay the kindness, the deer braided Jane's hair.
Cynthia: Rrrrrrright. Those were definitely the exact same deer that Jane saw.

Brodi: So, these are some of our thoughts on setting. We hope you enjoyed! And if you have any tips, please share in the comments!


  1. This was such a lovely post. Thank you, ladies, for your thoughts! I mostly just write for fun during NaNoWriMo, but I feel like I sort of have an opposite problem in that my setting work is okay, but I almost never describe how characters look physically. I'm the type of reader who ignores everything an author tells me about how people and places look and then I go and insert my own ideas. I'm always really shocked in film adaptations of books because I sometimes realize things about the plot or characters I never knew because I ignored the author's descriptions. Oops! Guess I'm a terrible reader/writer.

    Thanks for all of the great advice, though. I particularly liked what Jodi had to say about determining what your characters would notice apart from one another in the same space. That's extremely helpful!

  2. What a fantastic post ladies!! I love reading about each one of you approach writting setting! As a reader I love when the setting makes me feel like I'm right there with the characters!

  3. I love that you all wrote this post! It was so fun to read, and I have to agree (as a reader) that the setting is REALLY important to a story. I am so excited to read Lady Jane Grey's story and to visit your wonderfully researched setting. :-D