Setting: Where’s it at and what’s it smell like?

“O, give me a home where the buffalo roam. Or a chrome-and-glass condo where the TV is on. A chipped wooden bench in a broken down railway station, under a clear, open New England sky. Or an ornate hotel lobby, hushed, with velvety banquettes, the clinking notes of silverware and china from the dining room. A sudden, rushing downpour in the fall, or searing dry heat, or the squeak of boots in snow. The dusty interior of a pick-up truck’s cab, where the characters sit in silence listening to the engine tick as it cools.” – Sarah Van Arsdale in “Atmospheric Pressure: Using Setting to Create Atmosphere & Emotions,” The Writers’ Chronicle, October-November, 2018

When a character in the novel you’re reading cuts her finger, can you smell the blood?

First edition

For years, new writers avoided describing settings in their short stories and novels because they suffered through ancient novels in high school and college literature classes with thousands of dreary words of description. Description fell out of fashion. On the plus side, readers no longer had to feel guilty when they skipped multiple long paragraphs of description. On the minus side, readers were likely to end up with a cacophony of disembodied voices in a dark room–and they were lucky if the author bothered to tell them the room was dark.

So now, authors are (I think) learning that their stories are better when they engage the five senses. Van Arsdale writes that “Readers bend toward setting because we’re bound to it with our physical bodies, we feel the humidity rise without even checking the Accuweather forecast, or we smell the damp, cave-like earth as we approach a subway station.”

I just finished re-reading Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” Now there’s a novel where the reader definitely knows where the characters are at and what they and the house smell like:

“No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”

Place settings can be somewhat ephemeral such as this one in Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale”:

“Winter then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run. And what it did to Northern forests can hardly be described, considering that it iced the branches of the sycamores on Chrystie Street and swept them back and forth until they rang like ranks of bells.”

Or somewhat more literal like this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”:

First edition

“They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.”

There’s no need for ungainly paragraphs of description as Pat Conroy shows us in “South of Broad”:

“San Francisco is a city that requires a fine pair of legs, a city of cliffs misnamed as hills, honeycombed with a fine webbing of showy houses that cling to the slanted streets with the fierceness of abalones.”

Now here’s a passage from Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” which is a bit long for some of today’s readers, but the writing easily holds the attention of the adventurous reader:

“The finished clock is resplendent. At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock.
But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else.

The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side. 
Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.

All of this takes hours.

First edition

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.

At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler. Dress in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles shiny silver balls that correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern.

After midnight, the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and the cloud returns. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself vanishes.

By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.” 

Growing up, I had more trouble getting through “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque than any other book I was assigned to read in an English class. It was more real than I could tolerate because the author made sure I could smell the blood:

First English language edition

“I lie down on many a station platform; I stand before many a soup kitchen; I squat on many a bench;–then at last the landscape becomes disturbing, mysterious, and familiar. It glides past the western windows with its villages, their thatched roofs like caps, pulled over the white-washed, half-timbered houses, its corn-fields, gleaming like mother-of-pearl in the slanting light, its orchards, its barns and old lime trees. 

“The names of the stations begin to take on meaning and my heart trembles. The train stamps and stamps onward. I stand at the window and hold on to the frame. These names mark the boundaries of my youth.” 

Van Asdale writes that in spite of the author’s infatuation with his or her main character, s/he must bring that character “to a real place and time for examination. Bring the reader into the cab o the pickup truck; turn the radio on low. Or roll down one window, to hear the crickets, or those far-off traffic sounds. Watch. Listen. These details allow the atmosphere, and who among us hasn’t sat in a car late at night, talking, awash with emotion? This is what it is to create atmosphere, and to allow atmosphere to give rise to emotion. And that is, ultimately, the reason for digging your spade deeply into setting.”

I love stream-of-consciousness writing and interior monologues from characters who may or may not be reliable narrators. But even if you don’t want to tackle techniques on the cutting edge of fiction, you can still–with apt words and on-point sketches–find enough details about the setting of your story to immerse your reader into the center of the plot.