Mastering Setting

As fall settles into upstate New York, I find myself thinking about all the ways my life is beginning to change. Already, I find my window of time outdoors growing smaller as the evening chill and darkening sky make my warm, well-lit living room seem like the more enticing option. I seldom bake in the summer, but this time of year my love of cooking kicks in and the kitchen fills with the smell of pumpkin bread, molasses cookies, and thick garlic laden soups. I sleep easier at night wrapped in soft blankets, but waking is harder once the morning sunlight no longer streams through my windows. Unfortunately, my son and I both have seasonal allergies, so fall brings runny noses and itchy eyes, and winter will bring sneezy, miserable colds. In our area, construction projects come to an end after the summer rush, and we stock up on fire wood and battery powered lamps and candles in anticipation of the winter storms.

Along with all of these tangible changes, there’s also a shift in mood that comes about every fall. I begin to feel nostalgic for childhood days, remembering the strong emotions associated with starting a new school year. I love fall, but there’s a sadness to this time of year, too. Summer is over and it was fleeting. I’m conscious of the relentless progression of time. I think ahead to the days when my son will start school and anticipate how wistfully I’ll look back on this year when he’s still so small.

In every aspect of my life, setting plays a role. I make different choices these days than I would’ve made two months ago, or would still make if I lived somewhere else. And I feel differently about those choices. I’m propelled into action in anticipation of winter and lulled into melancholy meditation while watching the leaves cascade off the trees.

If setting shapes our everyday lives this much, it should definitely shape your novel as well. Can you imagine leaving it out? Yet too many authors seem to view setting as something to cross off an imaginary list. Okay, I dropped a few key details about where this person lives, so now I’m done. I’ve conveyed the necessary information. But setting, when done well, should infuse your story with a vivid tone and it should shape the choices that your characters make. Setting can be a catalyst for plot. And when it’s done really well, it can invoke emotion in your reader. That’s the standard you should aim for.

This October, I’m excited to be co-leading a workshop called Mastering Setting with Kim Griswell, editor at Portable Press.


The workshop is one of the many writing retreats put on by the Highlights Foundation whose mission is to improve the quality of children’s literature by helping authors and illustrators hone their craft. The Founders Workshops are held in rural Pennsylvania at a homey farm house with individual surrounding cabins. They’re limited to small groups of participants (usually 8 to 15) so the atmosphere is intimate and everyone gets personal attention. We discuss the craft of writing while sitting in a warm, cozy living room, drinking wine and eating appetizers. Meals are full-course, five-star affairs. For this particular weekend, we will welcome guest author Clara Gillow Clark who will talk about how she researches and integrates setting into historical fiction. We’ll have a guest illustrator who will teach even the least artistic among us (that would be me) to see with an artist’s eye. And most exciting of all, we’ll take a nature walk with a seasoned biologist, otherwise known as my dad. (*heart*)

In addition to writing exercises which you may share with the group for feedback, there will be time for one-on-one critiques, readings from favorite novels that show us how setting should be done, ruminations from myself and Kim, lots of sensory exploration, and hopefully time to rock in a rocking chair on the porch of your cabin and watch the sunset.

Can you join us?

The Mastering Setting workshop will be held October 13 through 16th, 2011 in Honesdale, PA. You can request an application on-line here. There are scholarships available, so don’t let money hold you back. And you’ve got a month to plan, so really there are no excuses. I promise you won’t regret taking this time out for yourself and your writing career. Stop, smell the roses, and then write about them!

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