I was taught and learned the importance of descriptive and powerful settings at an early age. In my elementary school art class, a very clever and gifted teacher spent an entire class period changing a variety of picture frames on several of his own water color and oil paintings. His point was to show us that you can have a lovely painting, but if it is not framed correctly, it loses much of its beauty. He also demonstrated this with some really bad works of art, ours. In those days, student egos weren’t as carefully protected as they are now. He transformed our work into something much better than it had been, demonstrating how the correct frame could dress up our paintings and drawings, making them more pleasing to the eye.
Paining the picture
In my young mind, the painting itself was the whole point; it was the setting. I finally understood that what framed the painting was that painting’s setting. In music class when we were preparing for a public program, we were also preparing the settings for our plays and musical performances in this art class. It was not something our art teacher relished. Elementary school children can be quite messy on a grand scale, producing something less than grand. However, it was a worthwhile project, so as so many teachers do, he stayed late with those of us who wanted to do this project, mainly those in the program, and again used our backdrops as a lesson in settings. I can still vividly remember how the stage took on such a magical aura on the afternoon or evening of the performance in contrast to our practice sessions conducted on an undecorated stage. Then, finally, in my English class, I extended that knowledge to the relationship between plot, characters, and settings.
A novelist can develop a well-designed intriguing plot, complete with all the twists and turns that produces a compelling page turner, played out by memorable and enticing characters, but if those elements are placed into flat, vague, and mundane settings, the novel dims, losing much of its punch. It was, in fact, a setting that inspired my first novel. It was an abandoned farmhouse on a small country road, located fairly close to where I live. I would drive by it often, each time thinking of the old adage, “If that old house could only talk.” One day, I finally stopped on the side of the road in order to get a better intimate view of the old place and all the old outbuildings surrounding it. I conjured up in my mind what it would have looked like inside in its heyday, wondering what the occupants had been like, and all the births and deaths it had seen. I knew this house and the surrounding acreage would play an important role in my yet to be started novel. I just didn’t know how.
I decided to employ the hold it had on me to a fictitious person in my prologue:
Does it speak to you?
It always reached out and spoke to me, that old abandoned farmhouse on Mill Creek Road. Perhaps it was its prominence, sitting grandly at the apex of a ninety-degree turn in an otherwise meandering road. Perhaps it was simply the house itself. It spoke of better times when, in its prime, the two-story home once stood proudly nestled under majestic oaks. Despite the fact that it had languished abandoned for apparently many, many years, it seemed to be grasping onto life. Perhaps the lure I felt was its tranquil setting, surrounded on three sides by either alfalfa fields in season or rich river bottom soil during off-season.
My love affair with the house continued in my prologue. I imagined what the rooms held inside. Were the walls and ceilings made of pebble board or wallpaper or perhaps cedar which grew in abundance in the area? Was there a particular room in the house that was more special, more pleasing, than the others? I could see several broken windows, and that the plantation style pillars which held up the porch roof were falling through the floor of the porch. Was the inside in similar deterioration? Since the fence around the house carried a “NO TRESPASSING” sign, I couldn’t answer those questions, but my novel was a historical fiction, so I felt I could mentally make this house what it was now, and then transform it into what it might have been during the timeline of my yet to be novel. I needed a literary device for that to happen. My fictitious person, who was the speaker in the prologue, fit the bill.
In my prologue, this imaginary person decides to ignore the no trespassing sign and takes an imaginary walk through the house, room by room, as it stood now. I sat on the hood of my truck, gazing at the house, and in my mind, began this make-believe voyage through this old home to which I was so drawn, making mental notes as I went. I knew that it was important to convey what thoughts I might have held on this fantasy tour; I felt it important that the reader would feel the house which would become one of the primary settings for the novel. This house, as it stood in neglect, had to be felt by those who would later read my words. In my prologue, I described my feelings, the reverent manner in which I walked through the old place, and what imaginary thoughts would make its way through the brain of the writer. Since I was the actual writer, this was easy. What I discovered was the longer I sat on the hood of my truck, the clearer the visions became. I learned an important lesson. To produce powerful settings, put yourself into them. I couldn’t walk this house and the adjacent acres, but I sure felt as if I had.
We all were taught in English classes, even at the elementary level, a certain amount of sensory processing. I remember in fifth grade, even though it was the 1950’s, my mother’s and my big sister’s English teacher, the formidable Miss Hamilton delivered a lifelong writing lesson. When the assignment was writing a narrative, she showed us methods of using sensory processing to enrich our stories, whether real or make-believe. As young writers, narratives tend to be a series of events, strung together like railcars that make up a train. We thought they were great; she thought differently. Her verdict always stood. Miss Hamilton had a way of making us sit up and listen, and to this day, she still ranks as the best teacher ever.
The first thing she did was instruct us to underline the first sentence in our first event. She then instructed us to find our next event and underline the first sentence. She then asked us to read what was in between. For most of us, myself included, there wasn’t much. To this day, I remember what she told us. In my years of teaching English, 3rd through 6th grade, I used her rule constantly trying to help young writers:
“Don’t go skipping through your events like you skip wily-nilly down a street. If it is an event, it is important for the reader to feel like they are there living it, not just reading about it. Take time to stop and talk about it.”
That “talking about it” was employing sensory processing. Another of her axioms was, “If you’re in the kitchen while your mother is cooking breakfast, you should make your reader smell the bacon.” By 6th grade, we children, because of this wonderful fifth grade teacher, understood the word elaborate. There are several of us who are published writers thanks to her.
Connect the setting to the plot and characters
My novel had several major settings, and each one was important to the plot and characters. The main settings were three ranches; the foremost one, dubbed Mill Creek Ranch, was fashioned after the old farmhouse that I was so drawn to, which I learned later in a county history book written by many actual residents of the county, was actually a ranch, though there was some farming there as well. It has never lost its appeal, and I still examine the old place as I drive by. There is such grandeur and appeal in that house that I still find hard to explain. Just recently I drove by to see two crepe myrtles in full bloom, huge and magnificent, though there is no apparent care being given to them. You see settings seem to have a life of their own. They live on long after people care about them.
The second ranch, Lantana Ridge, was completely fictional, though it was a compilation of several old abandoned buildings that I had seen and photographed on my back road adventures. It was more rugged, very isolated, and it had its beginnings in my novel as nothing more than a rough and shoddy cabin. As the novel progresses, it becomes more essential, more important to the characters and the plot of the storyline. It takes on that rough indomitable strength of a western novel, a place where real people carve out a living that is not for the weak of heart. When writing my novel, especially in times of drought, I could smell the burnt earth or the approach of a much needed rain. I could feel the hot dry winds against my cheek, and the blessed smell of the soil after a much needed rain brought an almost instant relief. As an author, I felt what I was writing all of this, and my readers let me know that they felt it as well. Again, I became aware of the importance of developing settings to enhance the story line.
The third ranch, New Moon Ranch, was whimsical and very small with little livestock, bordered by a vineyard, which grows in importance in the novel. This small ranch took a lot of time, patience, and daydreaming on my part to be able conjure up its magic setting and transfer it to my readers. There was nothing that made it a page turner or particularly important in the plotline. It just was there, like an oasis, in a novel that at times needed a quiet place to stop and rest. I wanted my readers to feel the magic of this quiet, peaceful, and magical place, and for a moment simply relax, put the book down, and rest. There was no high drama going on here, no conflicts, just a place to stop, sit on the banks of a small bubbling creek, and enjoy. This was the one location that, that changed by time, was completely real. It is called Sisterdale, Texas, complete with a vineyard, a creek, and more local lore than you would think possible in such a small place. Look at a map of Texas, and you will find it!
The process I used, when writing my novel, was actually quite simple. I went back and concentrated on only the settings, enriching them, at times changing them, and most importantly examining what effect they had on both the plot and the characters. In the end, as a first time novelist, I learned that in this world of rush, rush, rush, there is no rushing the importance of characters, plot, and settings in a novel. If I couldn’t feel the setting, my readers wouldn’t either. All my settings had elements of actual settings, often compilations of what was real and what came from my imagination. The hardest settings were nonfictional, those that required laborious research. That’s another issue for another time.
About the author:
Having lived in Texas for over forty years, JoAnne Marich MacIntyre embraces the Texas Hill Country as the primary setting for her first novel, a historical fiction, Strongest Bonds, Broken Fences. Her employment background includes a successful business career with a prominent Houston corporation and twenty years of teaching. Ms. MacIntyre moved from Houston in 1995 to her acreage in the Texas Hill Country where she enjoys hiking, gardening, and writing. She currently is promoting her first novel and is busy writing its sequel, When the Sandman Calls All Aboard. She hopes to have this latest novel out in late 2014.
Also by JoAnne Marich MacIntyre:
1. How to Engage Your Readers with Extraordinary Characters (article)
2. Writing Historical Fiction (article)