Monday, November 24, 2008

The Importance of Setting by Ashley Ladd

I’m sitting at the ball field watching my daughter’s play off game while perspiration is trickling down every crevice. If not for a merciful breeze every few minutes I’d be a melted Popsicle on the ground.

The sun is scorching, high in the noon sky. The sky is a perfect blue with fluffy white clouds meandering by.

Kids are being kids playing softball, kicking up dust, getting dirty, and loving it. We parents are loving it, too, even if we’re getting sun burnt because we didn’t think to bring sun block in mid-November in the Northern hemisphere.

Being born and raised in the Midwestern US (Ohio) I’m used to November being cold, even snowy. Perhaps downright freezing and icy. In fact, I like my Novembers that way as it’s the perfect herald to Thanksgiving, y birthday, and Christmas.

Although it’s a beautiful Florida day and I’m loving this, I also miss the seasons and am not in the holiday spirit.

I write a lot of stories set in South Florida because I know this place having lived here for twenty years. I know from experience that November can be chilly (never snowy or icy) or sweltering and that it can flip flop. Tomorrow’s supposed to be very cold again according to the weather gurus.

But what if someone else were to write a story set in South Florida, someone whose only visited briefly or perhaps has never been here?

To be accurate, they’d have to do a LOT of research. That’s true of setting anywhere. If you don’t already know it, you have to research every minute detail. That’s probably why the axiom “Write what you know” is so popular. It’s so easy to get tripped up when you guess or research but not enough.

Most of my stories are set in Ohio or Cincinnati, or made up planets where I can make my own rules so readers can’t “catch me” in making a stupid mistake. I also set one story in Mississippi and another in Nebraska, but I lived there, too.

Every now and then I set stories in England, primarily London, as my publisher, Total-E-Bound is British and sometimes, they want stories that are only set there. I love to do the research, to get in a different mind set, but I have to be very careful and profusely worry over every single detail, every word, to make it right. Then I still worry that I may have based my research on faulty information.

Setting is very important to a story. This softball game, for instance, would have a totally different tone if it was sprinkling, or if nasty clouds threatened overhead, if it was so cold we had to bundle up in quilts and jackets while the players froze on the field.

This softball field bordered by palm trees, pines, and mossy trees, with no hills or mountains in the background (because South Florida is so flat we think speed bumps are huge hills) with parents wearing halter tops and short shorts and getting sun burned in mid-November is totally different than a field in Ohio where it would be surrounded by hills so tall they look like mountains, with majestic oaks, mighty maple trees, and stoic walnut trees. It’s also different than one in Nebraska where it’s also flat, but there are few trees but seas of corn fields.

Some people think research is only required for historicals or medical thrillers, but that’s a fallacy. Every story needs to be accurate even if set in your home town even if it’s a small one with a population of one hundred. I once received an email from a reader who said she lived in my home town and she recognized it from my description. So you never know who will read your stories, which will be checking your facts. The more accurate, the more detailed your scenery, the richer the mosaic of your story, and the better it will be.

Specifically for my December release, setting plays an important role. It’s set in an office at Christmas time. There are Christmas decorations, treats, music. There’s a Secret Santa, an office Christmas party, and characters are dressed in Christmas finery. The setting is as much a character as the heroes and their co-workers. Without the setting, the story would fall flat.

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