When I set out to write my first novel, I knew the setting before I had fully mapped out my storyline. It was a given that FAMILY TREES would take place in Bayfield, Wis., a picturesque town on the shore of Lake Superior. My family had fallen in love with the area long before I was born, and today, I consider it a second home.
While writing a fictional love story about my characters Shelby Meyers and Ryan Chambers, I found that I was also writing about my real love for the setting – the lake and Apostle Islands, the unpredictable weather changes, and the way the breeze that comes off of the water can pick up the distinct scent of balsam – I had a lifetime of recollections from which to draw upon. Compared to the trial and errors of writing my first manuscript, whenever I worked on setting, the words seemed to come naturally.
In fact, just a few pages into the first chapter, I realized that the role of Lake Superior was more than just a place in my novel – for me, it was an important character:
Bayfield was populated with an eclectic blend of artists, craftsmen, and mariners. It was a place where the Chippewa culture ran as deep as the lake. A town where whitewashed clapboard houses and picket fences were reminiscent of immigrants who made their living fishing, lumbering, and quarrying for brownstone. It was the home to families who loved the land, their children, and the lives they built. This was a community that buttoned up in the wintertime, braving barren isolation, ice road lake crossings, and bitter cold temperatures. In reward, they basked in the glorious summer sun amidst lavender lupine, shimmering poplars, and fragrant apple trees.
And the grand force of it all was the lake herself. As lovely and temperamental as a woman, Lake Superior could dazzle admirers one moment and then, without warning, lash out in fury. When gentle, she would allow a kayak to lightly caress her sparkling surface. And when wicked, she could take a man’s breath away and swallow him whole into her icy belly.
This was home. Shelby couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. **
As authors, we have the joy of being able to create unique worlds in which our characters live. It may be a single room, a ship lost at sea, or a vibrant city that exists in another time period. Once characters leave the confines of their homes, sailing vessels or buildings and they venture outdoors – beyond the backyard, under the waves, or into a darkened city park – the fictional world suddenly becomes more than a place, because nature is alive, unpredictable, and in a constant state of change. It is in those settings where writers have opportunities to use nature to help advance the story forward, amplify tension, set mood, and create unforeseen challenges.
The skies had been a tranquil gray all morning, but now, without warning, their color turned sinister. In the time it took the two men to pull in the lines and pack their gear, the intensity of the wind had grown and snow began to fall heavy and wet. They had no way of knowing that just around the point a swath of ice was breaking apart and open water was churning. The waves were building quickly and surely, creating powerful movement beneath the ice. Section by section, the underwater force was shattering the serene, glass-like surface that Ryan had admired all morning.
In most novels, there are also instances when an author needs to move a character from one place to another. These simple transitions can be the perfect places to use setting to add interest during a rather routine action, or provide an additional nuance to a character’s personality. When I needed Shelby to leave her grandparents’ home and drive her truck into town, where she would eventually meet Ryan, I used her walk across a gravel driveway as an opportunity to show her ease in a rural setting:
All was quiet aside from the sound of her footsteps. She sensed a shift occurring in the nearby woods, a changing of the guards, of nocturnal creatures heading for their burrows while the sun-loving animals were just beginning to stir.
Perhaps my favorite use of nature is creating descriptions that reflect characters’ emotions. When doing this, I tend to think more as a poet than as a storyteller. For example, I incorporated the Northern Lights into a scene when Ryan realized he was falling in love with Shelby.
First rose toned, then a golden orange, and finally a blazing emerald green. From the corner of his eye he saw a brightening overhead. Looking skyward, he uttered his amazement. He watched in awe as a kaleidoscope of light shifted and blended fluidly above them. It was as if God was orchestrating a silent symphony in the skies. Inspired, Ryan reached across the blanket for Shelby’s hand before realizing she’d likely pull away. Instead, she entwined her fingers with his and he felt a rush of desire sweep through him. Cast in the light of aurora borealis, with Shelby at his side, Ryan was at a loss for words. This woman—this place—had made him feel more alive than ever before.
For anyone who is struggling with setting, I would recommend relying on your senses when imaging what your character can see, hear, smell, touch and taste in the world that you have created. A scene that is set on the sidelines of a parade, for example, is so much more than crowds, colorful floats, and high school bands. It’s the feel of cellophane-wrapped candy being strewn about your feet from a passing float; the heat that radiates off of a sun-baked city street; the aromas of popcorn, sunscreen, and truck exhaust; the taste of salty perspiration on your lips; and the pounding pulse you feel in your chest when the drum core marches by.
Simply close your eyes and rely on your senses. The words will come naturally.
** NOTE: Passages are from FAMILY TREES, by Kerstin March.
Kerstin March is the author of the novels, FAMILY TREES and BRANCHING OUT (Kensington Publishing). Currently writing her third novel, Kerstin lives in Minnesota with her husband and their three children. When her family isn’t scrambling with work, school, and errands, they can often be found up north, braving ice cold swims, fish boils, and bear scares on Lake Superior’s shore. Kerstin is a proud member of the Tall Poppy Writers and Romance Writers of America.