Writing about Writing


Setting and Details

Two important components of any novel are the setting and the details.  Today I wanted to talk about them and how I approach these things in my writing.

When I say setting, I’m referring to location and atmosphere.  This could refer to a city and the general feeling around it, or it could be something small like a back alley within that city – how do these things look, sound, smell, and feel?  My novel takes place in Vancouver.  This seems like an easy choice because I live in Vancouver, making location research much easier than anywhere else.  But initially I was going to set the story in a sort of nameless New York.

Why was I going to do that?  Because I liked the idea of a large, nameless city.  That way it would be easier for people to identify with what’s happening and envision it as their own city.  So I used New York as a template, but never used the name.  I researched ambulances run by the fire department vs hospitals, local restaurants and even mapped out streets.

But the more I got into it, the more I disliked the idea.  Google maps, street view, and images are amazing tools, but it’s still hard to describe a place if I haven’t really experienced it.  So I switched to Vancouver and rewrote all of the sections that were too obviously based on New York.  I think it was one of the best changes I could have made, because it made writing the rest of the book a lot easier and opened up more possibilities to develop immersive scenes.

Details are a part of the setting, the two are intrinsically linked, but they encompass much more.  What makes them so important is they can make or break the suspension of belief in a novel.  It’s like the glue that holds the narrative together.  If I wrote a novel about programming, but couldn’t describe the difference between Java and Objective C, readers would get frustrated and not bother reading the rest, let alone recommend it to any of their friends.

One of my characters is a paramedic, so on a few occasions I need to write scenes where he’s doing paramedic-y things.  Aside from watching episodes of Third Watch and searching Google, I needed to learn how to write these scenes with at least a passable degree of realism.  So I got help.  Fortunately, I have a friend who knows everything I needed to know and was willing to help (Thanks Alina!).  With her assistance, I’ve been able to design two scenes that should come off as medically realistic.  One of them is already written, the other is coming up.

There is also, in my opinion, a line that needs to be walked when it comes to incorporating these aspects in the writing.  A few years ago I read a fantasy novel by an author who had a primary job making maps.  The writing reflected his interest in geography with pages of extensive geographic descriptions.  This, in my opinion, bogged down the narrative to an almost intolerable degree.  The story itself was fine, but there was just too much description.

So, obviously, I don’t want to go overboard.  But I also need to make sure I don’t go too far in the other direction.  Sights, sounds, and smells are the little things that help pull a reader into a setting.  A novel without description becomes barren and lifeless.  So where does mine land?  Hopefully right in the middle between too much and too little.