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Getting Setting

When I sat down to write The Marshlanders I had been canoeing and kayaking for years and taking lots of notes about the flora and fauna of the East Anglian fens; my head was chockablock with cattails waving in the wind, green sedges along river banks, and mist over meres, not to mention cavorting otters, busy muskrats, and herons flying low over the water. 

By the time began to write I had devised satisfying characters and outlined a good plot, but what I was really excited about was describing the glorious natural settings rollicking about in my head. My first page dwelt on “heavy, wet grass with violets just unfurling,” “the pungency of skunk cabbage,” “sprinkles of anemones and spring beauties as well as the first fiddleheads…” imagesetc etc etc.

My agent scolded me for letting my setting obscure my plot line.  “Bring in the details of your setting as you go along,” she insisted, “but lead with action.”

My resulting first sentence:   “Clare ran like mad, dodging between the trees, leaping over fallen logs, and darting through openings in the underbrush…..”

In speculative fiction it is tempting to pour out every detail of those brand new worlds that have sprung so magically from our heads (click for great advice on worldbuilding). In Eco-fiction it is especially easy to get lost in the landscape and go into far too much elegiac detail about our imperiled green world. In our Cli-Fi dystopias and Solarpunk wonder worlds,  we lose track of our plots amidst the minute details of all those technological inventions we are so proud of.

Setting can be a problem in real world fiction too, when authors get carried away by research and bring to much of it into the foreground.  I recently gave up on reading a novel about the decorative glass industry where the author waxed on and on about every facet of the process until I forgot what was going on and who the characters were. This overuse of research happens in historical fiction as well,  when the author has studied up on period and costume and can’t resist obscuring the plot line with every last detail.

No question about it: there is something intoxicating about inventing whole new landscapes or researching historical ones to summon them up afresh. If we want to create an absorbing narrative, however, we need to realize that bringing new worlds to being may be a high for us but a drag for our readers if insufficiently pruned. We mustn’t let our setting overwhelm our action: the trick is to do our research thoroughly but not wallow in it, to find a better balance between  setting details and swiftness of narrative line.



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