Setting as a character – Sharon Struth

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By Sharon Struth

Traveling is one of my favorite pastimes. Whether I’m near my home in the U.S. or a destination further away, I love to see new places. Europe tops my list. In fact, my travels there inspired me to write my Sweet Life Series. The three books are set in locations I hold close to my heart: Tuscany, Italy; the Cotswolds, England; and Rhineland, Germany.♥

One of my goals in writing this series was for the reader to appreciate the setting as more than a backdrop to the story. I wanted them to embrace the places, much like they would a great secondary character in a novel. I hoped the reader would “feel” my love of each locale.

But how would I accomplish this without my novel’s pace dragging? Long paragraphs filled with description can invite the reader to skim… a word no self-respecting author wants to hear.

First, I thought about some basic rules for writing description. One, less is more. Pick a few strong words and let them do the work. And two, all description should be woven in as organically and subtly as possible, so it doesn’t seem like a list of an item’s attributes.

With that in mind, I considered one more piece of conventional writing advice: Write what you know.

In theory, I don’t adhere to that rule. Did J.K. Rowling know wizards or ever visit a university for them? Of course not. And these days, it’s easy to spend a day on Google Earth “traveling” to another country to pick up details for a place you wish to use as a story location. If your only goal is “stage setting,” this can work beautifully.

But, if you want the setting to pop from the page and have the reader ready to call their travel agent to book a flight, knowing your location more intimately goes a long way.  Physically being in a place, you get a “sense” about it that you can’t get from photos or a video. Think about it like a picture of a handsome guy on a dating website, versus meeting him in person. In person, he comes to life. You might see his nervous habit of chewing his nails, or that he can’t look you in eyes when he speaks. Or maybe he’s an average-looking guy, but, in person, he’s funny and a great conversationalist, adding to his appeal.  In either case, your view of him changes. This can happen with a location, too.

By visiting a place, your experiences can also become part of your story. In Willow’s Way, my April 2018 release set in the Cotswolds of England, I tried to convey the friendliness of the British people and serenity of the scenic countryside. And pub food was delicious! All things that made me wish my vacation there didn’t have to end.

Another example of why experiences matter was found on my trip to Tuscany. I’m pretty sure I climbed every single tower open to the public. Why? Because no matter how much I huffed and puffed on the way up those tall structures, the incredible views made the ache in my thighs worth every step.

I used this experience in a scene from The Sweet Life (series book one), where the book’s heroine climbs Siena’s Torre del Mangia, a well-known tower in the main square. My task was to not only write a brief description, but to show the power of the view. Here’s the passage:

Nothing could’ve prepared her for the panoramic view of Siena’s orange roofs dotting the cityscape, blending the hand of nature and man. Architecture so rustic and perfect that the buildings appeared to have sprouted from the soil.

Creating a strong sense of setting is about more than conveying the layout of the land. It comes from a collection of experiences: food, people, history, and art. If you’ve visited a place and loved it, don’t be afraid to give it a little more power. Show the reader how your location has a personality. Make the reader want to add it to their bucket list.


Sharon Struth believes you’re never too old to pursue a dream. The Hourglass, her debut novel, was a finalist in the National Readers’ Choice Awards for Best First Book. She is the author of the popular Blue Moon Lake Novels. When she’s not working, she and her husband happily sip their way through the scenic towns of the Connecticut Wine Trail, travel the world, and enjoy spending time with their precious pets and two grown daughters. She writes from the friendliest place she’s ever lived, Bethel, Connecticut.

sharonstruth.com

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