Writing Challenge #2: Know Your Setting

Today’s challenge is inspired by Lara Johnson’s recent post about settings, and where my own novel is taking me–straight into the underbelly of 19th century New York. And by underbelly I mean a notorious neighborhood rife with prostitution, murders and poverty.

What comes to mind when you hear the word brothel? A cliche of some sort, right? Due to a domino-like series of events, my main character, the vigorously moral Henri Blanchard, will find himself inside a brothel on his first day in New York. The place needs to seem real, or the scenes set there will feel like cliches, and too much tension will drop away.

So how will my particular den of iniquity be different from those portrayed in fiction and movies? The answer has two parts: the specific details I choose as the writer (and how I use them) and how Henri interprets his surroundings from his narrow perspective. So here’s your challenge:

PART 1: Think about your setting. Take a small, manageable piece of it, the protagonist’s home, for instance. From your perspective as the writer–an omniscient god manipulating every piece of the manuscript–what makes that home different from any other place, especially your own residence? What’s the building’s history? Who used to live there? What does the carpet smell like? You get the idea. Whether you’re examining a house, or a park, or a neighborhood in a particular city, write down some specific questions and then figure out the answers. If you’re into, say, your fifth draft, you might know the answers. Or maybe you’ll learn something surprising.

PART 2: This is the really fun part. Ask the same questions, but this time answer them from your protagonist’s perspective. If you’re writing a memoir, try this exercise from different moments in time, such as responding to the same set questions as yourself at age 10, and then again at your current age. Then compare the answers and see what you’ve learned about your setting–and your protagonist. This exercise might also get you thinking about point of view.

Feel free to leave a comment about what you’ve discovered! If you have an idea for a future Writing Challenge, e-mail me at laurastanfill at hotmail dot com. If I use your idea, I’ll credit you and link the post back to your website or blog.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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6 Responses to Writing Challenge #2: Know Your Setting

  1. When I think of a brothel, I think of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (which I just saw as #1 on a list of the Fifty Greatest Westerns).

    I think your mention of the sense of smell is a great idea, and one I don’t use enough. I almost never describe what things smell like, and that can be an important thing to mention in setting a scene. I believe that, of the five senses, smell is the most directly linked to memory.

    And, yes, it is vital to see the setting from the point of view of the character. I set a story in a rock band’s rehearsal room recently (and I did describe the smell in that one, come to think of it), and I had to keep in mind that the narrator knew a lot less about what he was seeing than I do (I was a musician for many years). So, I knew what everything was called, but he wouldn’t, so I had to be sure to write from his knowledge, not my own.

  2. What an interesting moment, realizing you know more about a situation than your character and then writing the scene accordingly. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap as a writer, because in theory we always know more about what’s going on than our protagonists. Sometimes that kind of thing is hard to catch and change. There’s also great joy in looking at things from a character’s POV–it can shake up our own sense of reality in a good way.

    • I like your use of the phrase “in theory.” 🙂

      I wrote a scene once where two characters were talking. One was explaining something to the other one, and when she was done the other one pointed out (quite correctly) that she was wrong. Which came a news to me, I can tell you. I thought she was right.

  3. Emerald Barnes says:

    I have to keep telling myself that I’m not going to base my settings on any one place I know specifically, and then that changes. I always end up writing them based on places I grew up, but in a fictional town I’ve made up. And as Anthony said, I’m the same way. I need to remember that I’m writing through my character’s eyes, especially when it’s in first-person. Anyway, I need to bookmark this post of yours and remember what you have suggested! Good suggestions all around! Great post!

    • Thanks, Emerald! I’ve done the same thing as you in my past two novels–making up small towns that were based on places I knew. The places themselves changed as the stories grew, of course, but they were definitely based on reality. I actually planned to have my new novel start in New Jersey, where I grew up, but then it took a detour and turned into historical fiction–so now I’m writing about French villages, 19th century New York and various towns in New England. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  4. Emerald Barnes says:

    I’d love to read your novel. It sounds very interesting! 😀

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