K.L. Abrahamson’s story “Paleolithic” appears in EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2022). I cannot think of any recent EQMM story that relies more heavily on setting and atmosphere than this evocative suspense tale. I was therefore not surprised to see that the Canadian author had chosen setting as the topic for this post. Her novels include the Detective Kazakov series and the amateur sleuth Phoebe Clay series (see the upcoming Within Angkor Shadows). She also writes in the fantasy and romance genres, and her short fiction, which includes a story that was nominated for Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award, has appeared in numerous anthologies. —Janet Hutchings
I’ve been reading a lot of stories and novels lately by newer authors. They always remind me of the three key elements of a story that my mentors repeated again and again. Character, setting, and problem (plot) are necessary for a story to be a story—at least to meet the expectations of anyone who has grown up in western civilization. While new authors seem to be fully aware of the need to have a character that the reader will (hopefully) care about, and also have absorbed the need to have something happen in the story (the plot), the importance of setting seems to have eluded many of them. Setting seems to be the unsung hero of the story.
In many of the stories I’ve been reading, I find myself dropped into a character’s head with no idea of where I am. A farmhouse, I’m told. Or a restaurant. Or a forest. But what farmhouse? What restaurant? What forest? As readers we bring our own expectations and experiences to a story. For example, I’ve seen a lot of farmhouses and lived in a few. Is it the farmhouse I knew? Does it look exactly like the one I have in my head with the same chipped white paint and sagging front porch? Does it have a summer kitchen off the back? Is it surrounded by lush gardens or overgrown lawn? Is there a dark pine forest behind it or rolling, sunlit canola fields?
As readers, when we sit down to read, we are relinquishing control of our imagination to the writer, so that we can be transported to the place and time of the writer’s story. The writer needs to provide the setting clues that ensure the reader can place the character in context. Otherwise, in the story I’m reading the farmhouse is my farmhouse, while the character could be visiting a very different farmhouse for the next reader.
So, being clear about setting helps ground the reader so they experience the story as the writer intended. The best writers take control of our imagination and place us exactly where they want us in the story. That’s a talent writers should aspire to because as readers, that’s what we want to read. We want to be transported. But setting can be so much more than simple description.
I started my adult life working in the criminal justice system. As a probation officer responsible for supervising offenders, I also prepared in-depth pre-sentence reports for the court about those offenders. The court had found these individuals guilty, but the judge was uncertain about the most appropriate sentence. The judges requested assessments to provide a better sense of the guilty party and to provide insights into an appropriate sentence.
In my reports I delved into the individual’s history from birth to present day. I tried to provide clarity about their upbringing and attitudes to help the judge understand them and what might be the most fitting sentence. You might suggest that this is all about character, not setting, but what was critical to this understanding was knowledge of the person’s past and current environment, their family, friends and community. Why? Because all of these things provide the context—aka setting—that explains the offender, who they are now, and who they might be in the future.
The same thing goes for characters. The context—aka setting—and the character are constantly interacting, thus getting to know the character requires readers to see how they act and react to their setting. The reader has to understand the character’s environment, family, community and even country. Why country? Because different nationalities have different ways of seeing the world and of presenting themselves. So understanding your character’s background setting helps illuminate their perspective on the world of the story. For instance, someone who grew up in a wealthy household in the city would probably have a far different perspective of my old farmhouse than the nostalgia I feel.
In my own Detective Kazakov mystery novels, starting with After Yekaterina, grounding the reader is doubly important because these novels are set in an alternate history where what remains of holy mother Russia is a small country trapped as a buffer between the Chinese Empire of the Sun and the Ottoman Empire. Detective Kazakov’s country is snared in dreams of Russia’s past greatness, and in the mystique of Catherine the Great. This perspective colors everything, including the crime, the detective, and the investigation.
At its best, setting can be far more than something the character reacts to and interacts with. Setting can be a character in the story and/or a metaphor for the story as a whole. Taking a step away from mystery for a moment, surely no one can argue with the fact that Shirley Jackson’s Hill House is a character in her famous horror/gothic novel, The Haunting of Hill House:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Wow. That is setting. It fills the reader with dread and clues the reader into the less-than-sane story to come. The house and how it affects those within its influence has moved beyond the sphere of setting and become the story. Wonderful.
Within mystery, strong setting abounds. James Lee Burke’s New Orleans-set Detective Dave Robicheaux series positively oozes with sweltering humidity and Louisiana mud—a wonderful metaphor for the underbelly of crime in the South and for the way that the relentlessness of crime and darkness can threaten everything light and good and beloved—including our souls.
In my mystery novel, Through Dark Water, the roiling dark ocean that threatens the heroine during a kayaking trip off the west coast of British Columbia is very much a metaphor for the heroine’s overwhelming guilt at surviving a horrific school shooting.
The setting of each of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries echoes the theme of the current novel, but all of them bring us back again and again to the small town of Three Pines, a place ‘you can stumble upon if lost, but rarely find on the way to somewhere else.’ A place aptly described as ‘on the road to nowhere.’ But readers of the Gamache books remember Three Pines for its peace, its small community of characters, its gardens and for the fact that it is surrounded by a less-than-tamed wilderness at the edge of the US/Canada border. Readers remember the quiet times before the bistro fire, the food, the parties, and the way darkness and danger threaten beyond the wavy-glass windows of this modern-day Shangri-La. People die in Three Pines, and yet Louise Penny has built a setting so replete with Norman Rockwell-esque images of life well lived that we trust the town and those who live and visit there—to our peril.
Setting becomes more critical when mysteries take us beyond the familiar world of our country, state or province. Jane Harper does a stand-out job of dropping us into the heat of drought-stricken Australia in The Dry. Her opening prologue immediately sets the tone of the place:
It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.
The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out the unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewara leveled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.
“It’ll break,” the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breaths to themselves like a prayer.”
We haven’t got any characters yet, other than the generic farmers, but we still feel the overwhelming heat and hopelessness of the dry and hear the buzzing of the flies over the carcasses. We may never have been in a drought before, or experienced the horror of having to destroy our livestock or watch them starve to death, but Jane Harper has taken us there, to that dark place. Now we just need to watch the characters interact with such a bereft place.
Jackson, Burke, Penny and Harper are all masters of their craft. They take us, through their use of specific details, to places we haven’t been before and make us squirm with more than a little discomfort at the heat, the humidity, the dry and the darkness. They make places—settings—come alive both through the character’s eyes and by presenting setting as a character itself. Reading any one of these wonderful writers is a reminder of the heroic nature of setting and why it is one of the trinity of writing elements.