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The Role of Setting - A Discussion with Ann Defee and Linda Cardillo

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

I often say that setting—a strong and vivid sense of place—is one of the particular delights of genre fiction. Needless to say, it’s important to most fiction but it can and often does play a special part in romance and mystery and fantasy and…well, what we usually refer to as genre or category fiction.

Ann, Linda and I discuss the role of setting and how you can make it an integral part of your story, whatever kind of story it is. Now, you obviously don’t want to be presenting your reader with a travelogue (if that was the case, you’d be writing travel books). The most obvious element of setting is, of course, the story’s physical location(s). Ann and Linda, you’ve both used a number of different places, ranging from small towns to big cities, from Texas towns to Boston. Tell us about some of your favorite story locations—and why.

Ann: Book settings are almost as important to the story as the main characters are. Not only do they craft the environment in which our new friends live, they also create the mood for the book. For instance, a book set in New York City doesn't have the same feel as one set in rural Montana–and vice versa. As a native Texan it's only natural for me to feature the land I love.

In Summer After Summer the Guadalupe River provides a playground where the primary characters can swim, water ski, picnic and even have a few R-rated romantic encounters. As teens their young love blossoms at their river hideaway. Later it’s where they discover a more mature love.

A little background on this river: on its 432 mile trip from the Texas Hill Country to the Gulf of Mexico the cold, green water of the Guadalupe River meanders through sheer cliffs of limestone, passes through fields of shrub cedar and live oaks and provides sustenance for pecan and peach groves–and that’s just the flora and fauna.

On the human side there are dance halls dating from the 19th century such as Gruene, where the careers of many country/western stars have been jump-started. Other features include swimming holes that are deep and cold, floating tube parties and world class ski jumping competitions. Folks come from all over Texas to enjoy the Guadalupe–a perfect place to spend a lazy, hazy summer day.

Linda: The same way Ann turned to her native Texas as the source for creating a vivid sense of place, I drew upon the Italian neighborhoods in which I’ve lived to give both texture and authenticity to Across the Table, my novel of three generations of women running a restaurant in Boston’s North End. The North End is a tourist mecca, drawing visitors to its

narrow, twisting streets; the Old North Church from which Paul Revere began his midnight ride; and the food emporiums that offer everything from crisp cannoli stuffed with creamy, sweetened ricotta to seafood direct from the adjacent waterfront and simmered with wine, tomatoes and fresh herbs. But for its inhabitants, the neighborhood is also a village, not unlike the hamlets in southern Italy from which many of them originally came. Life there is lived on the streets or at the open windows from which the nonnas, the grandmothers and matriarchs, watch everything. Setting the Dante family’s restaurant, Paradiso, in the North End allowed me to convey both the richness and intensity of a culture rooted in the family and food, but also the sometimes confining nature of a close-knit environment.

Paula: Historical novels provide a different kind of challenge when it comes to setting. It’s crucial to have your basic facts straight, even if you’re taking a writer’s liberty with some of them. Just as you’re not writing a travelogue, you’re not writing a non-fiction history, either. And in many cases, you’ll be putting words in your (real) characters’ mouths. Depending on the people and the era, there may not be much (if any) recorded conversation available.

It’s important to convey a vivid sense of the world these characters live in. That includes physical setting—the way a place looked, felt, sounded, smelled. Linda, you’ve written a number of historical novels. Can you describe the process of recreating a world that’s removed from ours by hundreds of years?

Linda: My path to writing a novel set in the Renaissance began with the seed of an idea. I knew I wanted to place my story in Italy, where I had lived and studied, and I decided to start my search for a character in the world of art. I stumbled early upon a scholarly catalog produced for an exhibition of Italian women artists, mounted by the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. An article in the catalog led me to my subject—the poet Vittoria Colonna—not an artist herself, but a patron of the arts whose influence in the sixteenth century extended into politics, literature, religion and the conflicts that raged throughout the Italian peninsula during her lifetime. That catalog was not only the starting point of my research, but also provided me with a window into how my characters dressed and the environment in which they lived through the glorious reproductions of the paintings in the exhibition.

Recreating the world of a highly educated noble woman in Renaissance Italy led me on a scavenger hunt. Each book or article I read or museum I visited offered me clues to the next step on my journey. Although I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Italy to continue my research, walking in the footsteps of my character and absorbing such elements as the way the light danced on the water surrounding her island castle or the sensation of the damp chill in the tunnel carved out of the mountain that protected the fortress, in this era of the internet and YouTube it is possible to experience much of what one needs to imagine a world. I am a visual learner and I translate what I discover into images, so paintings, etchings, videos of traditional music and dance, and artifacts in museums of household items and costumes were essential to helping me fill the rooms in Vittoria’s life.

Paula: As you’ve both described, a sense of authenticity is critical, whether you’re writing a historical or contemporary setting. When you’re creating (or, in a sense, recreating) the world of your story, the ideal situation for a writer combines lived experience and research, brought together by that writer’s imagination and skill. Linda, as you’ve also described, lived experience is only possible to a limited degree when you’re setting a story in Renaissance Italy or, say, during the US Civil War. If you’re fortunate enough, as you were, to be able to spend time in your chosen locale, you can absorb the feel of the place. And there’s the internet, of course, as well as many other forms of research, everything from interviewing knowledgeable people to reading non-fiction and turning to art and artefacts of the time. The background and historical facts you’re incorporating have to be seamlessly woven into the story (and vice versa). If that background is something you’ve experienced, lived, in your own life, as Ann discussed when she talked about Summer After Summer, you’re doubly fortunate! However, your story generally has to take precedence over your personal perspective, even if your experience informs the story. Which can be a tricky balancing act!

Ann: Lucy’s Got a Lot of ‘Splaining to Do is set in Las Vegas—the perfect environment for this quirky magical realism tale. Where else but Sin City can you can find a slot machine in the grocery store? Keeping that in mind, Las Vegas has two different faces—the typical town and the tourist trap. My heroine and hero live far from the Strip and have lives like normal folks. I think that blending the contrasting elements of the same community has enriched the idiosyncratic nature of this story. It’s just a lot of fun.

Paula: Besides the community itself, another aspect of setting that’s often important to a story is workplace. That can—to mention a few examples—include the military, the ever-popular ranch, a police department, hospital, school or office and so on. Ann, you’ve used military backgrounds for some of your stories, and they certainly reflect that combination of personal experience and research. Many of these workplace settings, especially the military and ranches, can be considered life settings; they determine much more than your characters’ 9-5 jobs or careers. These backgrounds, in particular, require getting the details right. (For one thing, your readers will set you straight if you make mistakes!) Ann, you know your way around a ranch setting, too. You agree about the importance of accuracy in the details of that kind of setting and its role in creating the story’s credibility?

Ann: Accuracy is extremely important. When I find something in a book that I know is implausible or inaccurate I quit reading it. So my advice is to write what you know and be very careful with your research. The heroine in my sixth book drove a classic red 1957 T-Bird. My brain knew it was supposed to be a T-Bird. My fingers, however, typed in a Mustang (numerous times). You wouldn’t believe the number of e-mails I received on that one.

Paula mentioned the very popular ranch setting. I got my first pair of cowboy boots when I was two and went to my first rodeo about the same time. My uncle was a renowned saddle maker to cowboys throughout the West. Check out the picture. How cute is that!

I’m not an expert on modern ranching—even though I have hauled horses halfway across the country and mastered the art of backing a large trailer—but what I do know is that ranching is grueling work. It’s more than a job, it’s a calling done in the broiling sun of summer or the bone-chilling winds of winter. Not to mention worrying about disease, cattle prices, water availability and governmental issues. Romantic is not the word I’d use for the cowboy of the American West. Rather I’d go for tough, tenacious and down to earth. They have traditional values and goals, they rely on their wits and intelligence, their word is their bond, and they believe in a sense of rugged fair play. They work hard and they play hard. The cowboy of the American West is the kind of person you’d want in your corner.

Paula: That’s a great description of what the western setting is all about! Regarding military settings, I want to mention Geri Krotow, an author who writes exceptionally well and with real authority about that kind of background--in books like the ones in her Whidbey Island series, as well as an early title, A Rendezvous to Remember, which uses both a historical setting (starting with World War 2, in Belgium) and a contemporary one. Like Ann’s Summer After Summer and Linda’s Across the Table, this story explores, among other things, the far-reaching relationship between past and present. Linda, in Across the Table, you show both the influence of the family workplace, a restaurant in Boston, on your characters and the effects of history on the present. In fact, would you say that the restaurant, Paradiso, embodies that past for your characters? And can you tell us how you came to decide on that setting?

Linda: Two things led me to set my story in an Italian restaurant. First, I’m an avid cook, taught at the side of my mother and grandmother, who never measured anything and who used the freshest of ingredients. As a child, one of my first jobs in the kitchen was to go out to the herb garden to pick parsley and basil every Saturday morning when my mother was making “gravy,” the tomato sauce that’s the basis for many southern Italian dishes. The second reason for the setting was to finally live a dream of mine to run a restaurant. I had a catering business in the North End when I was a young woman, and I’d had visions of ultimately transforming the catering into a full-fledged restaurant. Writing Across the Table allowed me to put all that personal experience into action. But as Paula mentions, the restaurant also reflects the family’s history. The story spans sixty years and takes the original restaurant from a humble pizza parlor in the 1940s through the changes in the American landscape until it’s a hip, sophisticated eatery.

Paula: We’ve talked a little about landscape and community--and about workplace. Something else that can be an important part of the story’s setting is the characters’ home, whether it’s a mansion, a small apartment, a cabin in the woods, a houseboat or whatever. The home, the physical place we live in, both shapes and is shaped by the people who reside there. As I said in a speech several years ago (if you’ll forgive me for quoting myself), “We are defined, or define ourselves, to a large extent, by where we live, how we live, the choices we make in everything from the amount of clutter to the flowers we choose to the furniture—everything. In the December 2012 issue of the magazine Vanity Fair, Julian Fellowes, author of several books, including Snobs, and the Downton Abbey TV series, says—speaking of our homes (and his characters’ homes): ‘Every detail is informative. There is almost nothing in your house that does not tell me something about you.’ Keep that in mind—especially if you invite Julian over for drinks.”

One excellent example of a fictional house that tells the reader a great deal about the characters whose lives have been formed, or at least affected by it, is Coldiron House on Fairham Island, off South Carolina. This house is featured in Brenda Novak’s The Secret Sister and The Secrets She Kept. It’s the place most associated with Josephine Lazarow, the family matriarch. Like Josephine herself, the house hides its secrets… Brenda’s descriptions of Coldiron House and its role in the family’s lives, past and present, evoke the secrets and deceptions at the heart of the story.

Ann and Linda, are there any houses—in your own books or those of others—that you feel exemplify the potentially crucial role of home, which is usually a character’s most immediate environment?

Ann: In A Texas State of Mind, I chose a classic Gulf Coast-style house with a wrap-around porch and a white picket fence as the perfect home for Lolly LaTullipe and her family. This historic architecture was created to adapt to the tropical climate of coastal living. The porch is a perfect place for a family to gather and a big shaggy dog to nap in the shade. Walk inside Lolly’s house and discover the antiques that serve as a backdrop for the “stuff” that every busy family collects. Christian Delacroix, the hero of this story, is jaded by his life in drug enforcement and is dreaming of a family and a house with a picket fence. Bingo! He hit the jackpot with Lolly and her menagerie—kids, dog and calico cat.

Linda: The most iconic of the houses in which I’ve placed my characters is the isolated cottage of Innisfree on Chappaquiddick Island in my First Light series. A weathered New England house set on a peninsula at the junction of a pond and a bay and reachable only by boat or over-sand vehicle (there are no roads that lead to Innisfree), the house has no electricity and is furnished in the haphazard, cast-off nature of summer cottages. But more than its gray shingles, rusting propane tank and outdoor shower, Innisfree is itself a character, shaping the lives of the people who live in it because of its wildness, isolation and connection to the land. As I write in the opening chapter, “The wind at Innisfree talks. Late at night, just outside the rear windows of the house, the voices rise up from the beach below the sea wall, slither through the grass and whisper around the eaves…. The wind converses—with the house, with the sea, with itself.”

Paula: All of these homes exist in communities of some kind, from small Texas towns to the city of Boston to a fictional island… We’ve broached the whole concept of community and its importance to characterization, as well as to the relationships within the story, the plot and conflict. Among the various kinds of communities we’ve brought up, small towns are perhaps the most popular in various genres, which include romance in its multiple forms, mystery, suspense, the classic western and many more story types and combinations. Ann and Linda, what, in your view, is the reason for the small-town setting’s ongoing popularity? (Nostalgia, comfort, connection…)

Ann: Nostalgia, comfort and connection all play a part in the popularity of small-town stories. There’s a desire for human connection that has nothing to do with social media or electronics. It’s a matter of talking to your neighbors and friends, of physically connecting to someone who may, or may not be in your circle of friends. The anonymity of being alone in a crowd has created a desire to read about a place where everyone knows your name.

Linda: I agree. The longing for community and connection is one of the most powerful driving forces in our lives.

Paula: A few very successful examples of small-town communities include Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove series, Brenda Novak’s Whiskey Creek, Sheila Roberts’s Icicle Falls, Robyn Carr’s Virgin River books. Some, like Debbie’s and Sheila’s, are based on real towns—Port Orchard, Washington, and Leavenworth, also in Washington (not the prison town!). The authors are open about this. Others, like Geri Krotow’s Whidbey Island, are real places with certain details changed.

The main thing is to ensure that your story’s town, whether it’s a version of a real town or not, be individual, while still incorporating the qualities that make small towns work, in reality and in fiction. As well, your town should fit its physical, cultural and economic landscape. Keep in mind, too, that your story’s community should convey both the positives and negatives of the life that’s lived there. If you’ll forgive me (again), I’ll quote myself (again) from that same speech, given several years ago: “Some characters will feel stifled and constrained by the sense that everyone knows everything about you; others will feel comforted and valued; most will, at times, feel both, depending on circumstances.” Linda, you mentioned this aspect of community with regard to Across the Table. Could you discuss it in a little more detail? And Ann, can you suggest a story of yours that reveals this interesting and often dynamic dichotomy?

Linda: The “village” that is Boston’s North End can be both supportive in times of crisis or celebration and claustrophobic in its tight-knit and closed nature. It is especially confining for characters who are perceived as “other,” whether they are literally outsiders, coming from somewhere else, people who didn’t grow up in the neighborhood, or individuals trying to define themselves apart from their “expected” role in the family. My character Toni, the daughter of Rose, founder of Paradiso, struggles to find a balance between her desire to be an artist, exploring life beyond the familiar and safe environs of family, and her recognition of the strength and love the family offers her that ultimately allows her to flourish.

Ann: In Believe, my initial foray into the world of Magical Realism, Spring left her Shenandoah heritage behind to escape the expectations created by her “special powers” and the stifling support of her family and extended community. Her sense of normalcy depended on getting as far away from Virginia as she could. But when her father is killed in a robbery she realizes how important family and friends can be. It’s an epiphany that changes the course of her life.

Paula: As we wind down this discussion, I’m going to share some useful, pithy and well-rendered comments by three authors who contributed to a hand-out I developed on this subject more than fifteen years ago—and I thank them all.

Margot Early says: “Ideally, the reader of a novel should feel that the story could have taken place nowhere but in the chosen setting or settings.”

Brenda Novak: “Setting provides the anchor for a reader’s imagination. It’s the first thing that goes on a novelist’s blank page, because every life, real or fictional, must have a context.”

And from Debbie Macomber: “The Russian writer Chekhov famously said that if a gun is introduced in Act 1, it had better get fired in Act 3. In other words, it needs to be essential, not extraneous. The same can be said of setting.”

And as Ann pointed out, setting crafts the environment in which the characters live and also creates the story’s mood.

If nothing else, I hope we’ve given you a sense of the vital role of setting or reinforced your own belief in its importance. There are many approaches you can use, of course, although we should warn once more against the “travelogue” route to fashioning your story’s setting. Characters, story, setting—they all interact, they’re all connected. They’re connected in every conceivable way, because to a significant extent character is determined by setting, whether your character or characters come from your story’s particular place or have chosen it. Do they feel trapped by it or liberated? Or both? (And that can go for other aspects of setting we’ve talked about, too—workplace and home, for instance.) Do your characters change their home (house, town, job, the landscape surrounding them in all its incarnations) or does it change them? Or both?

A remark by the great Eudora Welty might be a good place to end.

“It is, by the nature of itself, that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in places…”

About the Author

PAULA EYKELHOF is a former (retired) Executive Editor at Harlequin Books (now a division of Harper Collins). She was with the company for more than 30 years.

Paula worked with a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. She was responsible for various series programs (including Romance, Superromance, American Romance and Everlasting), as well as working on single-title imprints, principally MIRA and HQN.

She gave many workshops and speeches through the years and has also written a number of blogs on writing-related issues, most recently for Bellastoria Press. She has also advised many aspiring authors.

Paula is now working as a freelance editor and writer.

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