In her introduction to a collection of short stories, you can almost feel Geraldine Brooks retch at the word kitchen when connected to a story's setting. Shortly after reading Ms. Brooks’ essay, I picked up a novel that began with a conversation at a kitchen table. But vicariously looking over a map with the characters, I knew the scene would change momentarily, and it did.
Readers need settings they can identify with, to feel anchored. How can you, the reader, share a character’s shoes when in a setting so vague you can’t feel your feet? Conversely, how do you, the writer, insert setting details—especially in settings unfamiliar to your readers?
You know what not to do: plop specifics on the page almost as an FYI, or provide details akin to an amateur play’s badly painted cardboard backdrop. But how do you get it right? If a formula exists please let me know, but until you find it, you’ll profit by following the old standard: observe, study, practice.
How to Study Settings
Read. Mark scenes you encounter. Go back later and copy them. Your analysis of a hundred or so by a variety of authors will be like lotion on dry skin. Smooth.
To help you start, here are scenes from my collection. Selected randomly, it includes one scene set in the kitchen.
“After a few years on the demonstration circuit (I have a clear, diorama-like memory of being teargassed on the steps of the Justice Department), I landed in Colorado to study with a Tibetan Buddhist lama.” – Marc Ian Barasch
“There’d be knots of people, talking and arguing, on street corners, and then, when you got closer to them, they’d kind of melt away.” –Steven Vincent Benet
“St. Pierre, a sheaf of white-and-pink plaster houses, was woven together on a hill, like a haycock.” - Stella Benson
“...and jalousied windows opened and closed their shutters like painted wings.” – Victoria Brooks
“They puttered by a village of sampans moored along the shore. These were true houseboats with flowers blooming in wooden crates on the decks.” – Victoria Brooks
“I came to where the mill hands lived in close-together little shotgun houses—three rooms in a row, like long boxes, with public wells and privies that served two or three houses each.” – Olive Ann Burns“
“Elizabeth put one foot down onto the checkerboard linoleum of the first-floor hall and hooked the heel of her other shoe on the loose rubber tread of the bottom step. Her hand grabbed the newel post at the end of the banister. The stairs were treacherous ...” Elizabeth Cullinan
“The area was lush with hemlock, fir, oak, maple, birch, and every imaginable kind of moss and fern. It was also rich in history, starting with gravestones so old that their markings were nearly indecipherable.” – Barbara Delinsky
“A spectral fog is lifting off the cemetery grass, and high up in the low atmosphere I hear the wings of geese pinging.” – Richard Ford
“The other world, however, began right in the midst of our own household, and was entirely different, had another odor, another manner of speech and made different promises and demands. In this second world were servant-girls and workmen, ghost stories and breath of scandal. There was a gaily colored flood of monstrous, tempting, terrible, enigmatical goings-on, things such as the slaughter house and prison, drunken men and scolding women, cows in birth-throes, plunging horses, tales of burglaries, murders, suicides. All these beautiful and dreadful, wild and cruel things were round about, in the next street, in the next house. Policemen and traps passed to and fro, drunken men beat their wives, crowds of young girls flowed out of factories in the evening, old women were able to bewitch you and make you ill, robbers dwelt in the wood, incendiaries were rounded up by mounted policemen—everywhere seethed and reeked this second, passionate world, everywhere, except in our rooms, where mother and father were.” – Hermann Hesse
“Anna inhaled the deep, cool mildewed smell of centuries and wondered what it would be like to live somewhere so ancient. To have a past of burnished oak refectory tables, tapestries and mullions...” – Wendy Holden
“Behind them lay a little copse. Before them the turf, dotted with white flowers, sloped down to the brow of a cliff. Far below them, so that the sound of the breaking waves was very faint, lay the sea. Shasta had never seen it from such a height and never seen so much of it before, nor dreamed how many colors it had. On either hand the coast stretched away, headland after headland, and at the points, you could see the white foam running up the rocks but making no noise because it was so far off.” – C. S. Lewis
“Each room had a pair of narrow double doors that opened onto a miniature balcony—large enough for two small chairs and a Lilliputian table—on which guests could have black morning coffee. –Robert Ludlum“
“So he picks up the baby and leads us to his joint, and gets out some pretty fair beer, though it is needled a little, at that, and we sit around the kitchen chewing the fat in whispers. There is a crib in the kitchen, and Butch puts the baby in his crib, and it keeps on snoozing away first rate while we are talking. In fact, it is sleeping so sound that I am commencing to figure that Butch must give it some of the needled beer he is feeding us, because I am feeling a little dopey myself.” –Damon Runyon
“There was a high steady note of insects screaking. A rich odor of hay mixed with the heady smell of gasoline. Two or three times, a car rumbled by, shaking the ground.” –Mona Simpson
“Stockton, who had played a little football in high school, blocked Mrs. Barrows as she made for Mr. Martin. It took him and Fishbein together to force her out of the door and into the hall, crowded with stenographers and office boys. She was still screaming imprecations at Mr. Martin, tangled and contradictory imprecations. The hubbub finally died out down the corridor.” –James Thurber
“The vast hills in their snowy garments looked down upon the land, upon the house of Hazen Kinch. Still and silent and inscrutable.” –Ben Ames Williams
Once you’ve read the selections above, what will you do to study them? A starting point might be to examine word usage. For example, I thought traps in the selection by Hermann Hesse was a misprint for tramps. It’s not. As used by Hermann Hesse, it is a type of horse-pulled carriage. Ben Ames Williams could have written “still, and silent, and mysterious,” but inscrutable is a better word choice, isn’t it?
Certainly if you want to check on a few words, and you’re pressed for time, this blog is long enough. I’ll return to “settings” another day. In the meantime, start your collection. It’s educational, and is one collection that never needs dusting.