Setting Is More Than Where 🏝️


Hi, all—

I'm in the final month of writing Chokepoint, so I'm currently immersed in all the details that paint an image in a reader's mind and enhance atmosphere & the tone of a book and its scenes. But setting isn't just locale; it's so much more. This facet of story wasn't an easy hurdle for me to clear. When I first started writing, I stunk at "setting the scene". I actually received feedback from a literary agent on the first novel I wrote stating that there was so little detail within a scene I'd crafted that the characters, who were on a privateer during the American Revolution, could've been sitting in a present-day McDonalds...and she was right. 🫤

I've learned a bit since. But it wasn't until I received feedback from another agent on the manuscript for Blind Edge years later, that I realized how much. While the second agent offered representation, she said something that bugged me. It seems that this agent was not only an Army brat, but her father had once been stationed at Ft. Campbell. And although she loved Blind Edge, she wanted Regan to "notice" the housing areas on Ft. Campbell more. Yep, the agent had lived in one growing up & believed those residential locales should be fleshed out simply because they loomed large in her memory. She was wrong.

There's a crucial symbiotic aspect to setting that took me a few books to master: point of view. As you know, I write in a very deep POV—meaning you get all the internal thoughts & rationales, and even the snark & lies that my lead characters experience. But this also means that I can't spend an additional page or two in a Regan Chase thriller describing every aspect of a military home that a dependent would remember. 

Why? Regan doesn't possess those memories, much less feel that way about dependent housing. She's there as a soldier and an Army criminal investigator working a crime scene. Hence, everything Regan sees around her needs to reflect what that soldier & investigator in her would notice & how she would feel about it. Of course, this incorporates Regan's childhood experiences too—where applicable. So while Regan does think about her mom at several of the crime scenes in Blind Edge, she wouldn't have been looking around at the other houses & remarking on details that someone who grew up in that house, or one like it, would notice.

A few newsletters ago, I promised another throwback photo. This particular snapshot speaks directly to that crucial tie between point of view & setting. The picture is from my Navy days & was taken by a fellow officer on the port bridge wing of one of my ships. We were steaming off the coast of Hawaii at the time & we had tigers aboard.

FWIW, a tiger cruise occurs when a warship gets underway for a day or more with dependents of the ship's sailors. (Sorry, no significant others allowed.) West Coast ships sometimes offer a week-long cruise at the end of a six month deployment by pulling into Pearl Harbor to pick up those "tiger" dependents who've flown in to meet the ship. Everyone disembarks roughly a week later at the ship's homeport.

But back to the photo. In it, you'll find a male Naval Academy midshipman on the far left & to the right of the midn, you'll see an older, civilian gentleman (a tiger). To the right of the civilian, you also see the ship's captain. And to the right of the CO: yours truly. There's another officer hidden in the back, but we'll ignore him. Bonus points if you can tell me why I'm the only officer wearing a red hat.

But first, imagine what's going through the heads of the main four folks in the photo. The midshipman's excited because he's finally aboard a warship as an "almost officer" & is getting a taste of driving "a real ship". The civilian is an older, crusty veteran thinking about this particular ship—along with the memories of ships from his own Navy days, including sailors he served with & events that occurred. Our CO is showing off his ship to an old vet & he's also imparting advice to the midshipman, while at the same time, he's actively training an Officer of Deck (me). Oh, and that CO is excited & relieved because the ship's less than a week out of Alameda (her home port) and days from successfully completing a six month deployment.

And there's me. My thoughts were of training the midshipman too, since that was one of my collateral duties at the time. But I was also gleaning my CO's wisdom & learning as much as I could since, again, our days at sea for that particular deployment were drawing to a close.

Now imagine the possibilities if, say, a missile were to strike the ship at that precise moment. (Go with me here: it's a warship & I write thrillers.) If you had to write the scene that followed, the details that you would weave in setting-wise would depend on whose head you were in & the experiences that that person brought to that moment. Because a missile-fallout scene written in a green midshipman's head filled with the mere basics of Navy knowledge would be radically different from the veteran's who, while he served, did so decades earlier & on different classes of vessels. Or a scene written inside the mind of the experienced captain of that particular warship? Or one written/set within the brain of the officer on the far right. Because that red hat? It means she's in charge of damage control for that warship. How would this position & experience affect your scene and the details you use to describe it?

So you see? Setting isn't just the where of a book or a specific scene. It's intimately connected to point of view—and it should be!


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.