Now that my children are back in school, my summer of traveling is over. For our vacation, we loaded up the minivan and headed off to St. Louis, Missouri, a wonderful family vacation spot. The City Museum, the Gateway Arch, and barbecue and thin crust pizza. Even if I hadn’t specified St. Louis, one of those clues would have filled you into my destination. I was also fortunate enough to fly to Denver for a writing conference. While I didn’t get to explore the town, I did see the Rockies, the Paramount Theater, and the Tabor Building. As a writer, I would have loved to explore the cities more, talk to people, get a feel for the local flavor. Settings in a book, when well done, often become like a character and add an extra layer of adventure for the reader. Here are two ways I think a writer can bring out extra details in the setting.
Sensory Details. Writers have a huge opportunity with a setting to use sensory details so the reader can feel as if they are in the same town as the main character. If I’m reading a book set in a beach town, I want to feel the breeze in my hair, taste the salt on my lips, and hear the ocean waves lick against the sand. If I’m reading an urban thriller, I want to hear the police sirens and smell the police precinct. When I was in St. Louis, it was hot and humid, and I could taste the sweat on my face and feel the humidity like a wall of bricks around me. For lunch one day, we indulged in ice cream, the sweet sugary goodness going a long way when we exited the restaurant into the humid air.
Local flavor. I read a book recently and when I reflected on the book, I had no idea what state the small town was in or what differentiated this town from any other. While writers should go past the stereotypical details, a little local flavor can go a long way. When I went to Denver, I asked for unsweet tea and the man next to me laughed and asked if I was from the South. So while it might be stereotypical to include sweet tea in a book set in the deep South, a writer can go a little deeper and evoke emotion from the local flavor. Maybe your main character hasn’t returned to her family home in years and that’s the first sip of sweet tea since her grandmother’s funeral.
Sensory details and local flavor are two ways a writer can play up the setting for more realism and depth. What are some of your favorite settings in a book and how did the author make you feel like you were there in the setting?