Setting: A Strategy to Establishing Your Foundation

(Above, a picture of UMF’s Creative Writing house, photo credit Meagan Jones)

By Meagan Jones

The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.

 

          Meagan sits in a worn maroon chair with wooden armrests and opens her laptop. The chair rests to the right of the three front doors, two wooden and one white screen, each keeping the last of the sticky summer heat inside the creative writing house. Normally, they would be used to keep in the heat during the winter; holes between the windows and their sills let in egregious amounts of air – but now, they just serve to stifle the room.

          A few feet from her, in the next room, an old tan copier springs to life, printing a thick stack of paper handouts for a creative writing professor’s class. As soon as it stops, the house is thrust into silence. All except for the click, click, click of the second hand on the analog clock halfway through morning.

          Click, click, click.

          Meagan doesn’t think it sounds like tick-tock, tick-tock. The sound is simply too small for that. She looks idly at the other furniture crowded in the entryway in front of her: a yellowed couch that used to be white, sporting two small Sharpied-on hearts on its back, two other chairs, a lamp, and a wooden coffee table. To her left sits a bookshelf and a small kitchenette, with a grease-caked microwave, several boxes of tea, and a white dorm refrigerator. The perfect cozy nook for a college student with no where else to go to reheat their beverage.

          The air smells like tea, and tastes like dust. The fabric of the maroon chair scrapes her thighs. She finds herself looking up above the bookcase, to where a print of a painting of a girl rests. The girl lays on her stomach, her golden hair in a bun, flipping through indistinct pages. Meagan looks about the room once more, stalling for time, before looking down again and knowing that she must get to work.

 

          Setting, I’d wager, is one of the most important, if not the most important, parts of a narrative. It is the foundation, the part of the story that establishes where the characters are, the context, and the time the story takes place.

          To create this scene of the University of Maine at Farmington’s Creative Writing house (if you look at UMF’s Creative Writing page, you can catch a glimpse of it), I used a strategy I learned from a couple of creative writing classes I’ve taken. Hopefully, it will help you all too in your quest to create the perfect place and time. 

          The strategy was an exercise in which my classmates and I were told to write and try to make sure to use each of our five senses in describing the setting. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

          Each of these, put together, make up a complete picture of what a human experiences when walking into a space. It is easy, as a writer, to get caught up in what we see, and forget about the other senses; however, the more senses you include in your writing, the more the setting feels real.

          I used a place that actually exists to draw inspiration from, but it is just as important to look at what your character senses in a completely made up place. Think about how your character would interact with what’s around them.

          Does the place smell? Would they plug their nose? Is the place far removed from everything else, or is it close? Can your character hear cars nearby? Is the carpet fuzzy between their toes, or hard and scratchy? Can your character taste something?

          Questions like these are some things to ask yourself when you’re first writing something, or when you’ve just decided to force yourself to revise (or maybe you like revising!). Either way, you’re going to want to provide the clearest picture possible for your reader. Make them feel like they’ve stepped into your world. You’ve done your job right when they get lost in it.