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Setting the Scene

by Christine Sunderland

I often say I came to the writing of novels “through the back door.” While it is true I earned a BA in English Literature and loved reading, I never considered that I might become a writer. But time and grace has a way of changing things. As has been said, If you want to make God laugh, make plans, or something to that effect… or perhaps, Man proposes, God disposes…

When I turned the corner and stepped into middle-age, I began to keep journals, at first travel journals, then home journals. I admired a friend who wrote each day about her day. While I have never had that kind of discipline, my journal entries grew and multiplied, and with the advent of laptops and Word programs, writing became easier. I was a fast typist, a skill learned in my secretarial youth, a great advantage (“revenge of the typing pool,” another novel idea). At some point I wondered if I could create a novel from my journals, something to give to my grandchildren. So I tried weaving a plot into the settings. I tried creating characters who, for some compelling reason, needed to travel to these places.

So the setting of the scene became a major part of my stories, for everything else had to dance around it or dance with it: churches, sunsets, cities, villages, vineyards, shrines, grottoes, medieval ruins, cathedrals, airports and planes, hotels and restaurants in Italy, France, and England.

I had been greatly influenced by these places, so my characters were too. In this way my first novel was born. Pilgrimage told the story of a grieving mother who travels to Italy in search of healing. Of course my main character, a middle-aged woman like me, traveled to the settings in my journals. She contemplated the many mysteries found in my scribbled meditations. She swirled pasta and sipped chianti and savored rich espresso in cafes, bistros, and trattorias just as I had done and carefully recorded. She knelt on cold stone before smoky altars lit by sunlight shafting through clerestory windows.

When I consider again my backdoor entry into novel-writing, I am stunned by the power of scene, for the setting, described in vivid sensory detail, influences characters. A setting can be a dreamy destination or a nightmare propelling escape. It might be a moment of bodily nourishment (cafes, picnics, church suppers) or of spiritual nourishment (churches and shrines, hillside preaching or bedroom prayers). It can catalyze, synthesize, resolve. It can be crucial to the crisis, as in my soon-to-be-released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, in which a deadly confrontation is set on a mountaintop where a solitary hermit chapel embraces a rocky cliff.

Setting is not always fully formed, described, used. We often read all about feelings, desires, or the action of moving from a to b. But where, exactly, is this character? What does she see, smell, taste, touch, hear? And then, how does she react to what she sees, smells, tastes, touches, hears? Does she have a sudden flash of memory, a backstory encapsulated in a phrase that gives the reader one more clue into her character… The blackberries she chose from the market bin were dusty and plump, and Jane had a sudden recollection of picking berries with her father in a long-ago August, she so wanting to please him. Setting offers infinite possibilities to explore character within a simple phrase.

And setting can become a character itself, a creature wrestling with other characters: high heat, freezing cold, the natural phenomena challenging survival or simply changing an attitude or mood. In my fourth novel, Hana-lani, setting is possibly even more dominant than character. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions form a vital backdrop. Sandy beaches and blue waters are not always what they seem. Characters placed in such a world are molded, challenged, and at times soothed by the natural phenomena around them. Their world causes them to behave in certain ways.

Setting need not require many words. But setting the scene, and using it to further character and plot, enriches and textures the story, even as it grounds the reader. I want to taste the wine my heroine sips, but I also want to know what it reminds her of, and if she’s worried she’s holding the glass just right, or swirling the jeweled liquid with the right flair. I want to see where she is and hear the noise of the room, sense the mood of the bar, whether it is sophisticated, sensuous, seedy. Can she hear rain on the roof? Are the streets slick as she steps outside onto the sidewalk? I want to be right there with her, where she is, traveling alongside.

Christine Sunderland
Christine Sunderland is author of four award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, and Hana-lani, set in Hawaii (all OakTara). Her fifth novel, The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene, is set in Rome and Provence and should be released within the next year. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union. Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog) or http://www.fictionfinder.com/author/detail/325.

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2 Responses to Setting the Scene

  1. Donald True says:

    Dear Christine: Thank you again for a good read on setting scenes. I’ve been reading a lot of Tolstoy lately and I started reveiwing his scenes in some of his short stories with scenes from some of your novels. There is difference because of the story being told, but I’m beginning to recognize the basic patterns of good scene settting. Thanks for an enjoyabe reading experience. Fr. Donald True

  2. Thank you so much, Father True. Quite flattering to be in the same sentence with Tolstoy! But I so appreciate your encouragement. Blessings to you.