“The world only exists in your eyes – your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
A novel’s setting has been referred to as a story world. I’m writing about this today because in the ongoing loop of feedback that I get from my agent, the setting in my first book was something pointed out by two different editors. In the latest bit that came from an editor at Harper, the comment was, “If I were to offer any suggestion about the book at all, it would be just one. I was looking for just a bit more specificity in the setting of the novel, a bit more atmosphere and then for me, the novel would have become truly alive.”
I understand this. (unlike the potential genre conflict depending on your view of an age appropriate protagonist, as discussed in my previous post) Yes, I told where the book took place (Alabama and New Hampshire). Yes, I described Dixie’s environment, her family’s house, her grandmother’s houses, the native plants and trees, hey, I even described the dirt. (red in Alabama – Crimson Tide!) But, where I don’t think I did a good enough job was in peeling back those layers a bit and adding more description, extra small bits detail that, as he said, would have truly made the novel come alive.
I like getting this kind of specific feedback. It gives me something to think about with Book 2. Like, should I go back before it goes on submission and re-read it, see if the setting detail is improved? (hopefully, now with my eyes opened to it, I might see that yes, I did better, or, that I can fix it and make it better) And for Book 3, I’m so at the beginning of it, I can literally start fresh with that one.
I subscribe to “WRITERS ASK,” a quarterly publication with interviews of authors who provide their perspective on every aspect of writing a novel. I keep them all, so I was able to go back and see if there was a publication that discusses setting. I found it in Issue 57.
Several authors were interviewed, (not all listed here) such as Michael Cunningham (LIKE BEAUTY), Nami Mun, (MILES FROM NOWHERE), and Malena Watrous (IF YOU FOLLOW ME). Something common among a few was the fact they wrote, most of the time, about places very familiar to them. Like their birth state, or hometown. Yet, others took themselves to new places, either made up or overseas, in order to create challenge and to “see” another location through the characters they invented.
One great example was Malena Watrous’ book which is set in Japan. She said, “I had to set a novel overseas to realize the importance of setting in fiction. I say ‘realize’ because when I think back on the books that grabbed me as a young reader and made me want to become a writer, from Jane Eyre to the stories of J.D. Salinger, to MY ANTONIA, I now recognize to the extent to which the characters in these books were shaped by setting.” (Waltrous, Writers Ask, Issue 57, 2012)
She went on to explain that being out of your element makes you notice more around you than if you were staring at the same things every day. One character she created, a Japanese man, had traveled to America several times. The Japanese man couldn’t make sense of the narrator’s view of “waste” by the Japanese for disposing of chopsticks, while Americans chop down and use trees “to hang a few bulbs,” or the fact they bury the dead in wooden boxes. (Waltrous, Writer’s Ask, Issue 57, 2012)
There are so many elements to keep up with when writing a book, from character creation, themes, voice, point of view, plot, transition points, etc. etc., that sometimes, one of the most important areas of writing that would truly put your reader into the world you are creating, might be overlooked. This can happen to any of us because we read and re-read the same sentences as we work to create our fictional worlds.
How do you measure the amount of detail, or more specifically, how do you recognize when you need more, let’s call it, atmosphere in your story?