I had a favorite prof once who used to say (to paraphrase), “You are either great at setting or at plot and your first draft will be heavy in your preferred direction, so in your second draft, the primary goal is to fill in the area where you aren’t as strong.” (I’m a plot kind of girl, myself.) The same prof said it was part of our job as writers to decide what to keep and what to throw away, no matter who might make what suggestions when (even if he was the one making the suggestions).
These two pieces of advice combined have resulted in some of the most sizable pieces of cut material in all my books. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your setting is throw some of it away. I tend to go too far in the setting direction on my second draft, and in every book so far, I have ended cutting at least one enormous chunk that was too big even to be parsed out in small pieces.
In Royal Regard, I wrote a party scene, where my heroine’s social status as a permanent outsider was established beyond a shadow of a doubt, mostly by her own efforts to show off her international credentials. Ultimately, I determined the entire chapter was no more than decorative, not a means of moving the plot forward, so the scene was cut.
My current WIP, The Cub, initially drafted as my first book, has since been parceled out into a nine-book series. In the first draft, there was a very long, very detailed description of the block in Brooklyn where the three main characters grow up. This is, as you might guess, important information, but it was not important enough to warrant a six-page block of descriptive text in the middle of an otherwise interesting story. Now, however, all of that rich detail will be inserted much more carefully into the narrative, as I describe that block nine different times as my characters grow.
Likewise, in Blind Tribute, in one of the many, many drafts, I wrote a full chapter description of Harry discovering Riverwood Plantation. It was nothing but a walkthrough of the property he would live in for a quarter of the book, so it was cut, and some small parts of it found their way in as details in the final draft. (To be fair, Blind Tribute was drafted at least seven times, with two top-to-bottom rewrites, and a lot of other things were also left on the cutting room floor, not least Harry’s Last Will and Testament and his thoughts on Sherman’s March.)
So, while setting is as important as any other element of story, it is not more important. It has to be balanced with all of the other elements—plot, character, themes—which sometimes (apparently, for me, every time) requires over-writing and cutting back. And as my favorite prof would be the first to tell you, that’s not a weakness as a writer; it is the very soul of the job to decide what to prune—in my case, most often setting—and what pieces might be reused to add richness to a future narrative.
Mari Anne Christie writes second chances for scarred souls. Her book, Blind Tribute, is a multi-award winner in American historical fiction, and she writes historical romance as Mariana Gabrielle. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her two cats.