Setting is a story element we tend to ignore sometimes. It makes sense. After all, it’s the backdrop, the shuffling of props on a darkened stage, the tugging of ropes on pulleys behind the scenes. Yet, wise writers know that setting isn’t only a story element. Setting also reflects character. Sometimes setting is a character. At the mention of certain places in our connected histories, we recognize the theme, time, action, and key people represented in places such as Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Mayberry, Gettysburg, Tombstone, and Walton’s Mountain.
When I wrote my own novel, The Forget-Me-Nots, I drew from the influence of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. One of my recent reads, This Tender Land, is more tender to me because of the places I know by heart from my own experience.
Setting shows character because it reflects the characters living in the time and place revealed. Here is what I mean.
Imagine the following living rooms.
Living Room #1
The high-rise penthouse apartment windows revealed the panoramic view of the metropolitan skyline. A white linen sofa faced its loveseat mate, flanked by low-back chairs in charcoal gray. The black flat-screen television provided a complimentary contrast for the white mantle of the gas fireplace. The area rug tied the monochromatic theme together with its geometric motif.
Living Room #2
The picture window of the Cape Cod framed the tree-lined street. Needlepoint pillows leaned against one another in odd-numbered grouping along the bench seat under the window. A crocheted afghan in orange, cream, yellow, and brown splayed across the floral arm of the davenport. A basket of yarn with needles poking up toward the ceiling like bared winter branches sat to the left of the davenport.
Imagine the characters that might live in each of these rooms. Sit down within the rooms and consider them from a personal perspective. Or observe from a corner. Now watch.
A key is turning in the lock of a front door.
He slips the house key into his pinstripe suit coat. He surveys the entry, taking in the familiar decor, before setting his briefcase down on the ceramic flagstone. He notices a chip in one of the tiles, a slow smirk turning up the right corner of his mouth. Too bad this flooring pre-dated him or he would have bought a replacement long ago. It had mattered at the time–running in the house wearing his soccer cleats. Not anymore, he thinks as he enters the living room. She might walk in herself at that moment, carrying a tray of plated sugar cookies and steaming cups of tea. Sit, sit, sit! she would insist, jostling the tea in her attempt to avoid talking with her hands. He sits on the high-backed chair across from the davenport, the polished coffee table ready to receive the proffered tray. She would sit on the cushion’s edge, pass him cup and saucer, then ease back after taking her own in hand. She would sip, sigh, and ask about his day.
But, not today. Not ever again. He rises and reaches for the crocheted afghan. He places the cheap acrylic fibers under his nose and breathes her in–Deep Magic lotion, celery, furniture polish, and talcum powder. An ache travels from his chest to his throat, and his shoulders shake as he presses the nubby pattern into his clean-shaven face. His fingers find their way through the yarn-overs, and he grips the weave tighter until his fingers nails claw his palm on the afghan’s wrong side. Time passes beyond his caring until he feels his fatiguing knees wobble. After a shuddering exhale, he swipes his cheek, folds the afghan, and drapes it over his arm. Back at the entryway, he lifts his briefcase, removes the key from his pocket, and opens the door to leave. But, not before looking back one more time. With a wavering smile of promise, he envisions the gauche display of the afghan across the arm of his white linen sofa before he locks the front door of the first place–still the only place–he considered to be home.