Everything happens somewhere.
Nothing happens nowhere.
That might sound like the title of a country song, but it’s how I think about setting.
Sense of place.
SENSE of place, because senses—at least a couple of them— are usually involved.
And setting is an economical way of sketching a character.
I’ve collected some of my favorite descriptions of settings. From Mars to suburbia to swamps and gardens. The details! It’s all in the sensory details.
And just to illustrate this shiny, sensors string of gorgeous gems, I’m throwing in a few pictures from one of my most favorite settings. My garden.
Here...the bouquet of gorgeous settings:
Brock Clarke’s novel An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: There were no trees anywhere—it was as though Camelot had been nuked or had been the brainchild of the logging industry maybe—and each house was exactly the same except that some had powder blue vinyl siding and others had desert tan. There were elaborate wooden playgrounds in the backyards and mini-satellite dishes on every roof, and each driveway was a smooth carpet of blacktop and there wasn’t a sidewalk crack to trip over because there were no sidewalks, and each house had a garage that was so oversized it could have been its own house.
Josephine Humphrey’s novel Rich in Love about Mount Pleasant, SC: Out in the developments, some of the new roads curved back upon themselves, and I sometimes lost my sense of direction trying to get somewhere; or I might be riding along and all of a sudden the smooth asphalt turns to soft dirt and I’m in the country, with wooden houses balanced on concrete blocks, and the tragic crowing of roosters, and the black people on porches, innocent as natives. It was as if new places had been slapped down over the old ones, but some of the old was still showing through. I tried not to lose myself in those pockets. It could sometimes be too much for me, a house at the edge of a field, the rim of pines, the smoke. It wrenched my heart. There was too much emotion for me in the country.
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles: It was quiet in the deep morning of Mars, as quiet as a cool black well, with stars shining in the canal waters, and breathing in every room, the children curled with their spiders in closed hands.
George Orwell, 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage, and old rag mats . . . Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during the daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week.
Angela Carter, “The Lady of the House of Love,” from The Bloody Chamber: Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden… The castle is mostly given over to ghostly occupants but she herself has her own suite of drawing room and bedroom.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale: A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been take out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated the conditions of honorable decadence in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta. Indoors, in the cool bedrooms statured with incense, women protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, as the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass: Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions. Lyra stopped beside the Master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the hall. “You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her daemon. “Behave yourself.” Her daemon’s name was Pantaliaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.
Stuart Dybek, “Hot Ice” from The Coast of Chicago: It was hard to believe there ever were streetcars. The city back then, the city of their fathers, which was as far back as a family memory extended, even the city of their childhoods, seemed as remote to Eddie and Manny as the capital of some foreign country. The past collapsed about them—decayed, bulldozed, obliterated. They walked past block-length gutted factories, past walls of peeling, multicolored doors hammered up around flooded excavation pits, hung out in half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves. Broken glass collected everywhere, mounding like sand in the little, sunken front yards and gutters. Even the church’s stained-glass windows were patched with plywood.
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye: School has started, and Frieda and I get new brown stockings and cod-liver oil. Grown-ups talk in tired, edgy voices about Zicks’ Coal Company and take us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about. Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot and smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow… Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice.
Robert Morgan, Gap Creek: Where somebody has buried cabbage, all you see is the roots sticking out of the ground like pigtails. Cabbages are buried upside down. I looked in the stubble along the edge of the garden, and in the edge of the orchard beyond the hogpen. There was loose dirt and weedstalks where the taters had been dug up, but I didn’t see cabbage roots. I searched along the pasture fence and didn’t see no buried heads there either.
Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion . . . My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month.
Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams: New Guinea trees flared straight to the sky and splayed their fronds; their shapes looked from the tents like intricate sprays held still by the humid night. The sea glared flatly and was warm in January and had no winter in it ever. Wind blew up hard before storms and the trees tossed their fronds all of a piece, like women throwing skirts over their heads, and the clouds boiled up as though poured out of spigot, filled the whole flat horizon impossibly and completely and it was an angry show. He’d longed to see an oak tree, a big oak with layers of limbs and summer leaves moving in wind . . . he’d wanted to see that, and women in dresses and stockings and heels. The palm trees were strangest at night because they were so big and womanly, tossing themselves and sighing, while the women in the camp wore fatigues and boots. 41st Engineers had arrived to construct the ramp and the airstrip, and the native men had still worn grass skirts. The skirts rustled as the dark men walked, their flat-footed storkish gaits rustling the grass in a way that was stern rather than girlish. . .The natives were in the camp at all hours and the skirts came to seem natural above their nearly hairless, muscled calves, natural on them rather than on the women, so that the outward things distinguishing men and women lost meaning. You noticed instead the wrist of a Red Cross girl, narrow and flat in the masculine greenish cuff of a fatigue shirt. The whole world was turned around like that. . .