In Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, Sayers’s detective, Lord Peter Whimsey arrives at Pym’s Publicity under an alias to investigate a murder. Like most large ad agencies, Pym’s is full of rivalries, caviling, backbiting, and ad men on the make. Sayers sets a scene of tightly-wound tension on a summer day drenched in sticky heat. Then she layers over the human turmoil an impending storm: the more the barometer reading drops, the more tense the office atmosphere. And then…
“Hullo! Here comes the storm and no mistake….”
“…The rain came down like rods and roared upon the roof. In the lead gutters it danced and romped, rushing in small swift rivers into the hoppers. Mr. Prout, emerging from his room in a hurry, received a deluge of water down his neck from the roof and yelled for a boy to run along and shut the skylights. The oppression of heat and misery lifted from the office like a cast-off eiderdown.”
Like any element of a story, setting must advance the plot. In Murder Must Advertise, Sayers nails it, both physically and psychologically.
I have visceral memories of a more recent setting: the Lim mansion in Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride. A marital arrangement matched with folklore has caused a young woman, Li Lan, to become engaged to the dead son of a wealthy Chinese family. Li Lan first meets her spectral future husband in a shadowy, cavernous room of the Lim mansion. The room oozes delicious creepiness. The scene advances the plot in a few ways, not least setting up the reader for the ghostly spirit-world to come.
If you want to put protagonists in difficult situations, isolate them physically, like Li Lan in the shadowy room. And what about Stephen King’s isolated Overlook Hotel in The Shining?
If it’s romance you’re after, lush fabrics, foods, and embracing warmth might set a scene that leads to romance. Outside: come-hither foliage, sunny skies, and blanket in a bower might advance the plot. Or, what if the day suddenly turned cold and one blanket must serve as warmth for two?
Readers prefer that genre settings match their expectations. Thus, cozy mysteries should have cozy settings. Molly MacRae’s Scottish Highland series, beginning with Plaid and Plagiarism, is set in a comfortable bookstore with an attached bakery (the scones!). Murders are not too lurid and the story is delivered with a welcome dose of wry humor.
When it comes to the details describing a setting, I like Rule Number Nine in Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” I agree. Giving the reader a sense of place with some evocative details , while avoiding cookie-cutter descriptions, elicits interest and active reading. It allows readers to add their own details.
In that vein, while reading The Huntress, I added my own images to the parts where Kate Quinn describes Nina Markova’s sense of freedom and agency while flying WWII missions with the Night Witches. Writers that give enough but not too much description offer the reader a sense of collaboration that deepens the reader’s engagement with the story. As a reader I find that too many explicit details hold me at arm’s length from connecting to a story.
In the “Settings” chapter of her award-winning book, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot, Jane Cleland reminds us: “Early novels tended to include lengthy geographic depictions that many of today’s readers would consider interminably drawn out and downright boring. Those writers appropriately painted pictures of places few readers would ever see.”
Cleland, author of the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, also hosts a free monthly seminar on aspects of writing. Check it out at janecleland.com/events. The next one, on April 23, focuses on writing synopses. You don’t have to write mysteries to reap rewards from Cleland’s advice.
Reader or writer–allow setting to carry you away.
Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.