As a reader, I often get bored by long descriptions of place. After pages of flowery language about the shape of the topography or the decorative style of a house, I will scream at my book: enough already!
Still, in the best novels, the setting supports the story in an integral way. When I recall favorite books, the homes and lands that the characters inhabit are as real to me as my own history of place. In my memory, I have been to Thornfield and had tea with Mrs. Fairfax (Jane Eyre). I have sat at the Murray kitchen table in the middle of the night, eating sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate while the thunder rumbled outside (A Wrinkle in Time). I have even traveled through the desert with Father Jean Marie Latour (Death Comes for the Archbishop). As a writer, I hope to create the same vivid experience of place that I have had with these novels. But how?
1. Pay attention to how your favorite authors convey setting. What do they do that works? What do they do that does not work for you? How does their description support the story?
2. Pay attention to your own collection of places. How has setting influenced your life? Did the topography of your hometown shape your values or attitudes? How about the architecture or interior design of your home? Think about the other places you hang out—your synagogue or church, the local park, or the neighborhood coffee shop. How do these places shape the story of your life?
3. Practice. Take one of the settings you collected above and write about it. Think about how your setting might influence a story. Will it function as a character, something that other characters interact with? Or will your setting be a plot point—a place the propels the story forward? Perhaps your setting will set the mood of the whole story, letting your reader feel the elation, anxiety, or sadness of the characters and their place.
(PS The above photo comes from one of my favorite places, the beach on Coronado Island in California.)