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How Setting Impacts Story

You’re reading a novel and just can’t put it down. It’s as though you’re living it, embedded in the fabric of the plot, experiencing the emotions of the characters, immersed in their world. Long after you’ve closed the book, it stays with you.

What makes the book so memorable? 

Take one of my favorite classics, Wuthering Heights. Is it the characters, setting, or plot that makes it unforgettable decades after I read it? Perhaps Bronte’s skillful combination of story elements and literary devices made an impression on me? Or was it something more elusive?

Wuthering Heights brings to mind the moors, the manor, unrequited love, tragedy, and revenge. But more than that, there is an eerie feel to it that leaves me haunted. What specifically caused that response?

Perhaps the atmosphere? 

With this literary technique, various elements evoke feelings and pull the reader directly into the book. Plunging the reader into the main character’s world creates an emotional connection between story and reader. For me, setting and the natural environment, along with the character’s response to it is integral to the atmosphere of a novel. Deliberate description of the setting, imagery, and the character’s inner thoughts in relation to their surroundings helps to create that atmosphere. 

The interaction between characters and the time and space they inhabit makes the setting come alive, as though it were a character in its own right. In Wuthering Heights, the desolate moors reflect Heathcliff’s gloomy disposition, and the societal expectations result in a tragic outcome. Without this character of time and place, the book simply wouldn’t be as memorable. That’s the impact of setting on a story.

In my latest mystery novel, Lost Like Me, my intent was to use setting to create two opposing emotions in the reader: a safe, cozy feeling upended with a sense of urgency, fear, and entrapment as danger imposes itself upon the small town of Lake Kipling. The imagery of the setting creates an atmosphere of uncertainty leading to terror as claustrophobia literally and figuratively presses upon the main character. 

Following a traumatic event twelve years ago, Cheryl fled her former life to start fresh in the remote northern town surrounded by forests and lakes. But she is well aware that the past may pursue her wherever she goes.

The town’s distance from the city she fled and its isolation act as a buffer between her and the past, and also trap her. Lake Kipling is safe (for now), but it’s also her prison. Cheryl’s lovely family home is the last on a dead end street. A bird in a cage, she can never again return to the city of Hamilton that she loves.

The beauty of the terrain juxtaposed with the ruggedness in the area surrounding Lake Kipling reflects in its lakes and drives home the fact that looks can be deceiving: what appears as a charming place to live doesn’t change the fact that there is a constant threat of danger hanging over Cheryl. The vastness of nature provides the perfect spot to hide; when Cheryl’s husband’s receptionist, Julia, goes missing, it also serves as a frightening place to be lost. 

To create an even more terrifying atmosphere, the hot, dry weather results in wildfires in the forests, furthering the feeling of entrapment. As flames and smoke encroach upon Lake Kipling from two directions, time is running out for Julia. When residents are warned of the possibility of evacuation from their homes, Cheryl may be forced to leave her safe place. One woman needs to be found; another needs to remain lost. The fire has the potential to destroy both their lives.

In the midst of forest and lakes is the Millcroft Mine, a focal point of Lake Kipling and the stage for several scenes in the book. Literally built on gold, the mine’s outbuildings are covered in yellow siding. The brilliance of gold clashes with concrete, gravel, and the dull grey sludge of tailings in the pond, reminding the reader that the beauty of the natural environment exists side by side with its darker side. The quiet and isolation of Millcroft adds a touch of eeriness to the atmosphere of the novel. A snowglobe with the mine’s headframe is beautiful and melodic, trapping the scene under glass.

Using the five senses, I hope to place the reader into the midst of Cheryl’s world where they can see the wilderness, hear the roar of the fire, smell the smoke, feel the isolation, and taste the fear.  And perhaps when readers think of forest fires or hear about abandoned mines, they will remember Cheryl and her trauma.

With a different setting, the atmosphere may have been completely different. Imagine Cheryl living in NYC trying to lose herself in a crowd or Julia going missing in a city where people disappear every day. It wouldn't be the same story.

And that’s how setting impacts the story, leaving an aura behind after the book is closed.

I hope you enjoy Lost Like Me and I would love to hear from you about your reading experience.

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