When I first started out writing, much less seriously than I am now, I thought setting was just long flowery descriptions of something dumb. Like a chair. Oooh, the chair was ebony and straight with four legs and a wooden back, and against the wall, and under a picture, and blah… and blah… and double daggedly blah.
Like plot is what happens, and character is how they act and react, and theme is… not something you have to worry about unless you’re writing crazy literary pieces that nobody ever reads, setting was just where things were. And really who cares if the chair has four legs? Most chairs do. It really wasn’t as important as say, characterization. (Plus, when you read a lot of stuff that says how all important character-driven plot is, you tend to focus on characters and plot — not that I’m making excuses.)
I could kick my younger self now.
Setting is huge all-encompassing aspects that are integral to writing. It’s not just a character’s physical location and objects. And it is definitely important. For me, I include things like character descriptions (30,000 words in, I have not mentioned once what my main character looks like — oops) to world-building: the places that they’re at, the places that they’re not at, the objects no matter how tiny that are vital to portraying this world, the politics, the religious beliefs, their concepts of manners and morality, their jobs, their expectations, their customs… Well, “customs” is a whole encompassing thing on its own.
Since I spent too much time thinking that setting was a waste of time, I haven’t developed the appropriate skills along with the rest of my writing. I can’t just write and have all that stuff come out. I try to get it to flow, but it refuses.
Frankly, it’s demoralizing. I look at the novel I’m reading and then look at what I’ve written. I know it’s only a first draft, but… When I get to the second draft, I’m going to have all these marks saying “add details here — any details, for goodness sake, please!”
Compare that with my favorite alternate world series — K.E. Mills’ Rogue Agent, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy, Harry Potter… Absolutely amazing worlds involving layers upon layers of everything I’m talking about, plus unforgettable characters and can’t-put-down-if-my-life-depended-on-it plots while I just… suck. My woeful attempts at setting (especially compared to these masterpieces) makes me feel really unconfident about my work and makes me worried that I’m wasting my time (which isn’t very good for the word count).
With God Cursed, I think I did amazingly well — compared to how I normally write. It helped having settings like Venice and Versaille fresh in my head. The other stuff, like customs and magical objects, was more average, but some of it I’m developing in my current God Cursed novel, like how the Fallion feel about Adrian and his Blessed Children, and why they’ve taken a stance of homophobia when their god, Le Chasseur used to be Adrian and far more open-minded.
Setting, I think, is always going to be a constant struggle for me. I don’t even have anything to say that I learned, except to recognize when I’m failing, and attempt to add those details in. Like when it hit me, comparing my current work with what I was reading, and I went back through one scene and added one thousand words of glorious, relevent details.
The key to mastering anything isn’t simply practice, but to practice in the right way. Work smarter, not harder. If I want to get better, I need to practice in the right way.
Are there any resources (blogs, articles, books) that you’ve found helpful on setting? What are your favorite worlds and what makes them so special? Thanks!