Setting – the First Character You Create in a Story

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By Mary Ellis

What first comes to mind if someone mentions the television show, Hawaii 5-0? The muscular actor who plays Commander Steve McGarrett, or perhaps a clever plot twist in an episode involving identity theft? More likely it’s a visual of tanned young surfers riding the perfect wave to the shores of Waikiki, or perhaps a volcanic peak rising from the mist above the rainforest. How about NCIS – New Orleans? Those who’ve seen the show might picture Scott Bakula chasing a murderer through the crowd of perennial spring-breakers on Bourbon Street, or maybe tracking a psychopath by airboat through the gator-infested bayous of Cajun country. Most TV shows and movies rely on setting for more than just backdrop.

The setting becomes as integral to the story as protagonists and villains. I recently read about a serious drug problem in a rural town in southern Ohio. Despite sharing the same key elements, I can’t imagine Michael Mann considering Chillicothe for his series, Miami Vice. Julian Fellows didn’t start by writing dialogue for the characters of Downton Abbey, he began with Highclere Castle and wove his drama around this magnificent English estate.

Yes, movie and television rely primarily on visuals, but books paint pictures in the minds of readers. Consider the imagery created by Michener’s South Pacific, John Grisham’s The Testament, or Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Could you imagine moving Oliver Twist from the slums of London to the heath-covered Scottish highlands? I don’t think so. Setting can be either protagonistic as in Jane Eyre or Under the Tuscan Sun or antagonistic as in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Whether creating a romantic spot to rekindle the flame of lost love, or a dangerous snake pit from which your characters must escape, make your choice carefully. Then create a memorable world your readers can see, hear, taste and smell.

When an author contemplates a new series, location becomes even more crucial. Consider Jan Karon’s marvelous series set in Mitford, or Debbie Macomber’s lively romances in Cedar Cove. One of my favorite series by Nevada Barr involves Anna Pigeon, a federal park ranger engaged to an Episcopal priest. Anna solves murder after murder when transferred from one national park to the next. In addition to an intriguing whodunit, readers get a mini-vacation as they visit Carlsbad Canyons National Park in Blind Descent or the Natchez Trace Parkway in Deep South. Mystery series particularly benefit by a change in locale as characters adapt to new challenges, both natural and manmade.

Personally, I love to travel. I often set stories far from home, making several trips for research and to tweak final details. As my husband and I investigate spots to retire, I find plenty of settings for books. Whether you enjoy travel or prefer to write about the town where you were born and raised, never underestimate the power of setting. Create a vivid world; populate it with interesting characters; give them plenty to do and readers will keep coming back for more.

Midnight on the MississippiMary Ellis has written twelve novels set in the Amish community and several historical romances. Her latest from Harvest House Publishers, Midnight on the Mississippi, the first of a new mystery series, Secrets of the South, is set in New Orleans. Mary lives in Ohio with her husband, dog and cat and can be found on the web at: or on Facebook.

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