Construction Zone: Sets

I’ve discussed world building before, but I never thought of them as “sets” until I read the world building lesson in Holly’s revision course recently. She refers to the world of a novel as a “set” for the characters to play on/against…which suddenly brought the whole thing more into focus for me.

I have serious tunnel vision when I’m writing. I get so hyper-focused on the characters and…well…torturing them, that I forget minor details like, say, putting them in surroundings that make sense. Part of this is a deep-seated fear of my prose turning a bright shade of purple. When I first showed my writing to a friend in high school, his main comment (aside from the fact that I shouldn’t count on being a writer) was that it was too descriptive…and thus boring. I’ve read enough now to know that my writing wasn’t actually that bad then – it was very descriptive and certainly unpolished, but it followed the style of literary classics, which I happened to be reading a lot of then.

Even so, I’ve always remembered that, and steered away from verbose description since then. Too far, really – because I love nothing better than being transported to an old manor in the deep south with moss hanging off the trees over the swamp (as in one of the Intrigues I read recently), or into an old barn with a romantic hay loft reachable only by ladder. Though I’ll admit that I always wonder how people can really enjoy a roll in hay, since it has a tendency to poke when one least expects it to…

But I digress

I always knew I’d have to get some sort of handle on the “world” my stories are set in, even if they are just made up suburbs of larger well-known metropolitan cities. I put them there on purpose – just far enough out that I don’t have to know much about the city, but close enough I can take advantage of well-known spots if I want to. Sneaky, eh? HPC is set in a suburb outside of Denver. Up until recently, the “world” of my stories has been more of an irritant than anything else (aside from things like bedrooms and dining rooms, which I find quite “writable” (wonder why that is?).

In any case, when Holly used the word “sets”, it was like a light bulb went on in my brain. Or rather, the lights went up on the stage. Suddenly I “got it” – the props and sets popped out of the background and gained dimension in my head. I saw my characters moving around on sets from more of a director’s perspective, rather than in the finished movie I tend to see in my head while drafting. She also talks about the items that are actually described vs those that are just implied, and the importance of an item relative to the description it gets. That was already sort of “ingrained” in my head from all the reading I’ve done, but this just sort of solidified it from the writer’s side of the page for me, so to speak. Needless to say, I think my sets are going to really going to benefit from what I learned from that lesson.

How do you see the world you set your stories in? Is it a living thing, another character, a movie set? Do you plan out your world while you’re outlining, or do you let it “evolve” as you draft?

4 comments on “Construction Zone: Sets

  1. Heidi Sutherlin

    As someone who received their first poke in a hay loft – oh wait, that came out wrong….but I digress ;-)…

    Anyway this is an interesting post and I also found myself steering clear of the setting with the exception of the necessary. I’ve always been fascinated with Nora Robert’s ability to create a landscape, that seems to exist and as you read her books regardless of where they are set they just seem to add to the “map” that she’s already created with other books. I’m trying to do this with the new MS and have really concentrated on creating a town. Thinking of it as a ‘set’ is brilliant and really makes it all make more sense. Funny how our perceptions work like that. Great post, thanks!

  2. Dolly

    As someone who predominantly writes fantasy – world creation is part of a daily job, and a detailed world creation. So far I have got 2 fantasy worlds, and 1 sci-fi world. Granted, they all need more details, but I have got enough on them to make them a credible world.

    I love creating my worlds – perhaps it’s the escapist in me. But though I never put them in term for “set” – that’s how I always see them. Like a movie.

  3. Kristin Callender

    I tend to be pretty vague with my settings. Unless there is a specific landmark or place I feel adds to the story I try to leave the details up to the reader. I’m sure my thoughts on this will change as my writing evolves. I do see the story I’m working on like a movie going in my mind, so I agree that it is easier to write about the setting when you see it as a movie set for your characters.

    Thanks for the post 🙂

  4. Jamie DeBree

    LOL Heidi – you’re welcome. Gotta love hay, right? 😉 Holly really is brilliant – I’m learning a lot from her course, even if I don’t actually follow most of the rules.

    Dolly – I was thinking of you when I wrote a lot of this…fantasy writers have my utmost respect for all the work that goes into world building. It simply amazes me.

    Kristin – that’s how I’ve been up to now…very vague, very few details. And I still don’t want my settings to get in the way of the story…it’s still just a backdrop, but hopefully a better one when I get done with this whole rewrite/revise process. 🙂