Setting, as the consultant who delivered a report on my novel in progress noted, is a tricky one. Modern readers are much less tolerant of long, detailed descriptions than, for instance, the Victorians were. Reading Dickens today, we can become weary of the sheer volume of description and end up thinking, ‘I just want an impression of that area of London – not so much detail that I could find my way around it blindfolded!’
Once again, the consultant’s advice has been vital to my rewrite:
‘What you want isn’t bulk, but a few telling details. Setting is never just a place where things happen: it always conveys important information... Decor signals taste, social class, income and even the inhabitants’ likely world view: black granite backed by glass and bristling with steel gadgets? Gingham curtains, home-made bunting and shabby chic? Old –fashioned groceries such as lard, tripe, white flour, Bisto, Bird’s custard, Abernethy biscuits?... In real life we are constantly picking up and decoding these signals, which is one reason why entering someone’s house for the first time is a step towards greater intimacy: we can read the signals they have chosen for themselves. Their puce-coloured bath with gold taps (or their conservatory smelling of cat pee, or their immaculate minimalist living room, or their collection of ceramic thimbles) will influence our opinion of the kind of people they are.’
Before I learned this valuable lesson, I had barely hinted at the settings in which my characters found themselves, and thinking much harder about how they would express themselves through their surroundings made me realise that the characters themselves needed more thought. The search for those ‘few telling details’ taught me to define the characters more carefully, and not to waste a word on random or irrelevant detail when describing the settings.
In the latest version of Unspeakable Things, the difference between Deb’s mantelpiece and Sarah’s points to a deeper contrast between the two friends and their lives. Attempting to tidy her chaotic house before Sarah and Jim come round, Deb notes the overcrowded mantlepiece and the general mess:
...’these rooms were a mishmash of styles and influences, souvenirs of disparate places, piles of magazine clippings Mum gave her that she never had time to read, books of her Dad’s and stepmum’s, and on the walls, posters from films and comedy clubs mixed in with an array of photographs, old and new: the chronicle of her large and complex family.’
Going back into her own ordered house after Jim goes off on a trip, Sarah notes:
‘...there was their sofa, where she lay in the evenings with her feet in Jim’s lap, facing the mantelpiece which she kept spacious and uncluttered; with just a vase in chunky recycled glass in the centre, holding Calla lilies.’
After Uncle John lets her into the attic treasure trove full of mementoes of the mother she doesn’t remember, Jim returns to find a transformation:
‘She had framed the wedding photograph and the one of Mary with her and David, as well as a couple of others of the twins, and these and many unframed prints were crowded on the mantelpiece. It had lost the stylish, minimalist look she used to favour and was suddenly inhabited by numerous faces staring out.’
But Sarah is about to discover that families are not a neat and tidy affair; it is not only her mantelpiece that has become messy and out of control...
I can’t leave a discussion of setting without alerting you to an excellent post by blogger Kristen Lamb on using setting to deepen your characters: http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/show-dont-tell-using-setting-to-deepen-your-characters/. If you are here looking for writing tips, I can’t recommend Kristen’s blog highly enough, and this post sent me rushing back to my novel with a new zeal for using setting to show, rather than tell what a character is all about.
Glancing around my surroundings now, I wonder what they express about me... festering tea mugs, piled up notebooks and index cards, a teetering pile of undone ironing; pens on the floor (oh that’s where they all are!) and a cushion, inexplicably, on the printer. Is this the setting for a lazy, disorganised character who is barely coping with life? No no, I tell myself firmly, it’s a writer’s room, that’s what it is.