I’ve always been in awe of writers who make the setting a character in their stories. I read those passages woven into the fabric of the plot, never slowing it down, but rather adding to the momentum of the story as it reaches a climax and I think, I want to do that. Many of today’s fiction writers give short shrift to setting in their rush to get that inciting incident into the first chapter and get rid of anything “the reader skips over.”
If done well, setting can another tool to catapult your readers into the story and keep them there. My goal has become to make the fictive world so real, the reader is transported to that place. They’re no longer sprawled on the couch with a bowl of popcorn on the coffee table. In fact, they forget to eat the popcorn. How do I do that? It’s not in big chunks of narrative, but in small details that build and build until the reader is lost in the story. It take time and practice, but I think I arrived there with The Beekeeper’s Son, set in barren, dusty south Texas. Readers see this place through the eyes of Deborah Lantz, who’s just arrived from Tennessee, a verdant, lush state in comparison. Deborah hops from the van and dust puffs around her bare feet, covering her toes. The sound of cicadas rings in her ears. Every step she takes through the tall weeds to carry her sack of clothes to her new home is accompanied by grasshoppers that whiz past her or land on her apron. Her new bedroom is filled with one bed and a crate. A faded, white curtain adorns the only window in a room that smells of dirty diaper.
Deborah is conflicted about coming to south Texas. She’s left behind her beau and the only home she’s ever known. The setting is an important component of that conflict. It’s not just fluffy stuff.
Needless to say all those details aren’t compressed into one paragraph. Details have to have well chosen and chosen sparingly. No long paragraphs detailing the minutia of a room, house or city. They’re slipped in among the meeting and greeting of Deborah’s new community and her unceremonious fall over an armadillo and the encounter with Phineas, the morose, scarred young man who will soon become such an important part of her new life.
Throughout The Beekeeper’s Son, I sought to find ways to help the reader see what Deborah sees and feel what she feels about this strange new place. Her first visit to the Mexican border, the first time she sees the ocean and feels the water ebb and flow under her feet on the beach, smells the salt water and hears the seagulls screeching overhead. All these places help Deborah realize that beauty created by God can be found everywhere.
I’ll concede it can be harder when the setting isn’t so directly connected to the novel’s theme. In The Bishop’s Son, my latest release in the Amish of Bee County series, Deborah’s sister Leila goes to the movie theater for the first time. Those of us who’ve been going to the movies all our lives might be hard pressed to find it interesting, but she’s never experienced the big screen before. She’s impressed with the soft velvety feel of the seats, she’s cold under the AC and the noise from loud speakers make her jump. The buttery popcorn makes her thirsty. She shares an icy cold root beer with Jesse, the man who will lead her down a path from which there may be no return.
Leila takes a new job in a daycare. Again, not particularly exciting as settings go, but through the eyes of a young Amish girl who’s never been allowed to spend time away from the farm, it’s a whole new experience. My goal as a writer is to make the reader feel that same excitement. To see places through the character’s eyes. And again, the setting is connected to the conflict. Leila is being drawn into the English world, farther and farther from her family and friends. She has one foot out the door and the man she loves is taking that same road. Will she stay or will she disappear into the English world?
A reader once said of one of my novels: “I felt like I was in that house with Emma (the main character).” That’s the goal. To plop the reader down in the middle of your story no matter how far it is from the reality of his or her life. Choose your details wisely and they’ll disappear down that rabbit hole with you.
Kelly Irvin is the author of The Bishop’s Son, the second novel in the Amish of Bee County series from Zondervan/HarperCollins. It follows The Beekeeper’s Son, which received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, calling it “a delicately woven masterpiece.” She is also the author of the Bliss Creek Amish series and the New Hope Amish series, both from Harvest Housing Publishing. She has also penned two inspirational romantic suspense novels, A Deadly Wilderness and No Child of Mine.
The Kansas native is a graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism. She has been writing nonfiction professionally for thirty years, including ten years as a newspaper reporter. She has worked in public relations for the City of San Antonio for twenty-one years. Kelly is married to photographer Tim Irvin. They have two young adult children, two grandchildren, two cats, and a tank full of fish. In her spare time, she likes to write short stories and read books by her favorite authors.