Place Settings

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Photo by David Mark via Pixabay

You know how people used to require formal introductions by a mutual third party in order to begin conversation or become better acquainted?

I’m like that with places. It’s very hard for me to just waltz into a store, particularly the smaller, independent, or mom-and-pop types, without feeling an acute sense of awkwardness and discomfort. This isn’t because the proprietors are unfriendly or unhelpful (usually it’s quite the opposite), but I feel weird coming in without “knowing the rules.” Each place has its own feel, its own style, its own way of doing things beyond the general rules of politeness. I feel far more confident if I go with a friend who has already been to said place and who can therefore “show me the ropes.” Even if my friend hasn’t been there before, it’s easier to feel lost and clueless with somebody else so you can laugh nervously at your shared discomfort. (Or maybe you’re lucky and have a friend who doesn’t feel awkward in those situations and can grant you confidence.)

I know it seems silly. I mean, how will you experience anything or do anything if you’re too nervous to enter new places or experience new situations? For me it just takes longer to get used to how things are, to feel out how things are managed. Maybe it’s because I’m tall, but I always feel so big and gangling in small stores, like I’m going to trip and fall into a shelf or turn around and break something by brushing up against it. And so it takes some time to remind myself that no, I’m not a bull in a china shop, and yes, I am capable of controlling all of my limbs. On the flip side, if I’m in a city, I feel so small and lost that I become easily stressed and overwhelmed with conflicting stimuli (which makes it even more important to plan ahead, leave plenty of extra time getting from place to place, and taking a savvy friend if you can.)

Atmosphere and setting are intrinsic and yet often forgotten in writing. They can be a character as much as the people within it are. (Don’t believe me? Pick up a traditional 19th century Gothic novel.) In film, you have set design, lighting, and music at your disposal. In books, all you have are words to describe where someone is at, and that can help you show so much. I confess that I am not very good at remembering place or even picturing it in my work. But the geography of a story, even within a single scene, can help you and the reader understand the tone of the scene and characters, how their moods and reactions harmonize or clash with their surroundings.

I’ve written a little bit before about how geography can affect travel time and battles, but it doesn’t have to be anything that big. Humans customize our spaces. What people chose to put around them reveals a lot, as I’m sure Sherlock would tell you. Some of it is deliberate, part of the facade of what we want people to see in the “public” space, as opposed to how their private space looks. How someone conducts themselves in different settings also plays a role. Your behavior changes depending on where you are. Showing who is comfortable in that space and who is not can give rise to revelation or conflict, both of which are necessary to move a scene along.

Of course, establishing setting and atmosphere can be tricky. It’s easy to give into the temptation of the info-dump and not every character can be a super-sleuth who notices everything. But just remembering to do it at all is a good step towards properly fleshing out your world, its history, and those who dwell within it.

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