Economy of Settings


This isn’t really writing advice—just me rambling a bit.

My son is a thespian. We’ve been having more and more discussions about the craft of acting. He noticed in sitcoms that there aren’t many sets. It was most obvious during his brief stint of watching Cheers. The only set in the first season is the front of the bar. Viewers might get a glimpse of the back room that first season, but pretty much the bar is it.

Of course it’s cheaper to have just one set. You keep the cost of labor and materials down. But is something else going on?

When I was writing my recent novel, I found myself not wanting to introduce anymore new settings after the middle of the book. I’d think of a scene and then reject it because it would be at a totally new place for the reader. I thought that was strange. It costs me nothing but time and energy to create a new set. Was I being lazy? Maybe.

In my fantasy books, I love creating new sets. And it’s pretty standard for fantasy. You have a character. She goes on a quest. She encounters new characters and new places as she goes. There’s even a sort of pattern: home that she has to leave, scary place where she gets hurt, idyllic place where she heals, more scary places that get worse and worse until she ends up in the terrifying lair of the villain.

So I know I’m not lazy about settings when I write fantasy. Why in contemporary fiction did I shut down my settings?

I’ve decided on two reasons: familiarity for the reader and character economy.

When you see the bar at Cheers or the bar in How I met Your Mother or the living room in The Big Bang Theory, you are instantly drawn to a certain frame of mind. You have expectations of comfort, or humor or feeling like you are where everybody knows your name. By limiting the settings in a book, I think a writer can foster those sorts of expectations: Oh we’re back at the coffee house now, the characters are getting a break. Or she’s at her job now, something bad is going to happen. And you can surprise the reader by mixing up the expectations.

In a way, settings can become a character of the book. Which means, they should have some of the same rules. Having Julie as my editor, I know that I’m going to write in characters that eventually get cut or have their stories trimmed. No matter how tight I think the story is, it’s going to happen. There are several famous writers out there who could use Julie as their editor. Having a massive cast of characters is not always a good thing. She’s never cut one of my settings, but I think that was going on in the back of my mind during this last book– “We’re half way through the book, do we really need to go to Putt-Putt?”

What do you guys think? Do you like to drag your characters around to wherever because that’s part of the fun, or do you focus on keeping only a few places for your characters to visit?

Lightning Wolves and the Importance of Setting

This summer saw the publication of my eighth novel, a western steampunk adventure called Lightning Wolves. It’s the sequel to my 2011 novel Owl Dance and continues the story of the Russian invasion of the United States in 1877. You may not remember this seminal period in history, but I can assure you it involved airships, ornithopters, lightning guns, and automata. That’s the steampunk part of the story. The adventure comes from the characters living the experience. There’s Ramon Morales, the former sheriff trying to find new direction in life. There’s Larissa Crimson, a bounty hunter with a natural talent for machines and a desire to make the world a better place. There’s Curly Bill Bresnahan, an outlaw who has stumbled on a terrible weapon he hopes to use for his own gain. Their conflict and interaction drives the story forward.

This brings us to the western aspect of the story and the importance of setting. In a very real way, Lightning Wolves was inspired by my commute to work. If that doesn’t sound very inspirational to you, I should explain that my commute to work starts in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just a couple miles from the site of Billy the Kid’s trial, to a mountain peak on the Tohono O’Odham reservation 50 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. I make this drive once a week. Along the way, I pass through several places both famous and important to the region’s history.

The end of my commute!

I grew up watching Westerns, but I often find history more fascinating than fiction. For example, John Nakayama was a Japanese farmer who settled in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley early in the twentieth century. He and his family were instrumental in cultivating robust varieties of green chile that are so much a part of both the state’s economy and heritage. It wasn’t hard to imagine a Samurai warrior displaced by the Meiji Restoration starting down the same path a little earlier in the state’s history.

My commute to work carries me by the turnoff to Tombstone, Arizona. Although the gunfight at OK Corral put Tombstone on the map, the region had a rich history even before Wyatt Earp considered moving there. Tombstone was founded by Ed Shieffelin as a mining camp near the San Pedro River, which cuts through rolling land carpeted by chaparral. In my story, the army recruits people from Arizona to fight the Russians in California and Oregon. If this had happened, Ed and his brother Al would have faced difficulties developing their claim when the only people in the area were Apaches and a gang of cattle rustlers who called themselves the Cowboys. Taking one of the mine tours in Tombstone, inspired the idea of the Shieffelin’s working with an inventor to build a machine which could tunnel into rock.

Descending into the Good Enough Mine

The area around Tombstone provided even more story inspiration. Although the Cowboys, led by the Clanton family, are famous from many western movies, not many of those movies explored how they made their living stealing cattle from Mexican ranchers and selling it to the United States Army. On the river’s banks near Tombstone is one of the few standing Spanish Presidios, dating back to the 1700s. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate seemed a wonderful place for characters to seek shelter during a sand storm.

My commute to work also carries me through the Council Rocks region of the Dragoon Mountains where Cochise met with General Howard in 1872 to sign a peace treaty. It was known Geronimo frequented this area as well. The Council Rocks are a dramatic formation of yellow rocks strewn over a several-mile area like a natural fortress. It’s easy to see why the Apaches used this area as a stronghold and I knew it had to be the setting for one of the climactic encounters in the novel.

A natural fortress

Setting, for me, is more than a simple backdrop. It can provide inspiration for plot when we pay attention to the kinds of stories that have happened in similar places. Setting can provide inspiration for characters when we look at the people who have been drawn to those places and the conflicts they had. Sometimes those conflicts are with people who want the same land. Sometimes those conflicts are with the land itself. While it’s true that the type of story we want to tell will drive the setting, sometimes it’s fun to start with a setting and see where it leads you.

Lightning Wolves is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords in print and ebook formats.