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Exploring A Setting’s Potential

By C.V. Lee
April 19, 2022

As a writer, my first draft tends to be heavy on dialogue. In future drafts, I focus on adding more prose, character emotion, and fleshing out each scene’s setting. As a reader, I’m not a fan of long passages of description. I find that I get bogged down with too many details and tend to set a book aside if I feel overwhelmed by too many atmospheric elements at once. The challenge is putting enough into my setting to draw the reader into story without dragging down the pace.


When contemplating how to describe a scene, I try to include as many of the five senses as I can. One of the early scenes in my upcoming novel, ROSES & REBELS, is a Christmas eve supper . To put the reader into the time period, I describe not only the the way the room looks but how it smells of roasted meats and freshly baked bread. Enjoy the meal alongside my character and taste the apple cake flavored with cinnamon. Be entertained along with my protagonist as he watches the jugglers and a nativity play. Hear the sounds of the room, the scrap of the benches on the stone floor, the strains of the music, and the chatter of the guests. And lastly, enter his internal world. Feel what he feels. Not just the warmth from the Yule log burning on the hearth behind him, but also what he’s thinking and his reactions to what is happening around him.


In order to keep from having long paragraphs of description, I attempt to bring as many setting elements as possible into the action. For example, a character pulls out a high-backed wooden chair, or a female character smooths out the skirt of her rose-colored dress. In the novella I am currently writing, my heroine is contemplating her options while she drop spins. Wool was an important part of the economy of the area. I include a scene that gives the reader a peak into how drop spinning is done without devoting a lot of time the nitty-gritty details. This gives the reader an insight into what life was like during that time period. I find this a great way to gradually reveal setting, keep it interesting, while continuing to move the plot forward.


When writing emotionally charged scenes, I like to find ways to use setting to elicit a stronger reaction from my readers. I use elements of the setting to take the reader deeper into an emotional state of my protagonist’s mind. For example, my hero is angry about a situation, but I amp that up when he grabs his glass and hurls it at the chimney and it shatters all over the floor. In another scene, I use the warmth of the fire in a couple of ways. One character had been starved and lost a lot of weight. Now he is always cold and keeps a roaring fire in his study, a way to remind the reader of his new normal. But when he interrogates another character, we see that man sweating, not only from the heat of the fire, but also from the uncomfortable turn of the conversation.


Setting is a great tool for dropping in symbolism or foreshadowing. On the island of Jersey, the oak is one of the indigenous trees. I have a scene that plays out beneath the an oak tree, a way to showcase the man as a strong hero with a desire to protect the heroine, while for her the oak represents her inner strength and courage. The oak also symbolizes freedom which the hero wants her to embrace. At a later point in the story, he presents her with an acorn, a symbol of hope for their future.


Since my writing is set the during medieval era, it can be difficult to find many references to the unique idioms of the time. I aim to incorporate what I know of the culture to create similes. At the beginning of my upcoming novel, I reference an eel to give a visual of one of the main themes. While I knew that eels lived in the waters of the island, I was delighted when I later discovered that eels were one of the islands main exports. While we can’t include all our fascinating research into our stories, it’s fun to find ways to slip some of it in.

I’d love to hear your comments about how you use setting in your writing. I’m always open to learning new ways to enhance the reading experience.

C.V. Lee
Written by C.V. Lee

C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction featuring forgotten heroes and heroines of the past. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Alli, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can find her on Facebook @cvlee.histficwriter and on Instagram @cvleewriter.

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