Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writer Wednesday - Setting

This post was delayed by three weeks. Many apologizies.

For me, setting is a huge part of what brings wonder to a novel. Even a gritty novel could be tempered with a bit of wonder. Within the past year, the novel with the strongest sense of wonder for me was The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick. And that was mostly because of the setting on board a singular, mighty ship.

The first contemporary fantasy I ever read stuck with me through the years largely because of the wonderful setting of its very first scene. Imagine a tree as large as a redwood, with limbs that spread as broad as an oak. And then imagine, nestled in the arms of that tree, an inn:

It was getting harder to keep up the old inn. There was a lot of love rubbed into the warm finish of the wood, but even love and tallow couldn't hide the cracks and splits in the well-used tables or prevent a customer from sitting on an occasional splinter. The Inn of the Last Home was not fancy, not like some she'd heard about in Haven. It was comfortable. The living tree in which it was built wrapped its ancient arms around it lovingly, while the walls and fixtures were crafted around the boughs of the tree with such care as to make it impossible to tell where nature's work left off and man's work began. The bar seemed to ebb and flow like a polished wave around the living wood that supported it. The stained glass in the window panes cast welcoming flashes of vibrant color across the room.
From this,  the second paragraph of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles, the authors established a sense of wonder in their setting. And they didn't let up throughout the entire trilogy.

Upon the next page comes the reason for the tree being built in the inn:
The Inn of the Last Home was built high in the branches of a mighty vallenwood tree, as was every other building in Solace, with the exception of the blacksmith shop. The townspeople had decided to take to the trees during the terror and chaos following the Cataclysm. And thus Solace became a tree town, one of the few truly beautiful wonders left on Krynn.

Which is a lie. From Prayer's Eye Peak to Godshome and the Dark Queen's temple in Naraka, it's hard to find a trilogy with so many imaginative settings. Lots of people like to deride the Dragonlance Chronicles. Say what you will, but the authors did at least two things very well: they created lovable characters, and they created wonderful settings.

Other memorable settings come from novels I keep mentioning again and again. The forest in The Once and Future King. The cave in Clan of the Cave Bear. New York City at the end of the nineteenth century in The Gaslight Mysteries. The Shire, Rivendell and Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings. The Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride.

One real-world sight that inspired me was the Luxor in Las Vegas. There is a light that shines from the top of the pyramid straight out into space. It's arrogant and it's so very American. The entire hotel inspired a setting in my epic fantasy, which I'll share in the comments.

Please share any settings that have inspired you and, if you wish, allow us to read some of the settings you have written. As ever, please place your comments and your excerpts in separate posts, and keep any excerpts to 300 words or fewer.

12 comments:

Chicory said...

Your back with Writer's Wednesday! (Gives cyber hug of excitement). Wow. Okay, I'm calm again now.

One of the first books to sweep me away with setting is `Princess and the Goblins'. I fell completely in love with the grandmother's room. She has a fire with flames in the shape of roses. Her bathtub sinks into the night sky, so you bathe among the stars- literally.

As for real world settings, Luray Cavern definitely, and the Appalachian Mountains more generally.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks, Chicory!

Sounds like the grandmother's room is exactly what I am talking about.

I love caves. Here in Florida, most of them are underwater, but we do have Florida Caverns, which I hope to see one day soon. They are great fodder for the imagination!

A. Grey said...

Yay for Writer's Wednesday! That being said, I won't be posting any excerpts. I leave for Sirens tomorrow and my head is doing a bad immitation of the Exorcist at the moment.

I WILL say that you are so totally ON with the Dragonlance settings Tia! They were the books that started it all for me, from Larry Elmore's artwork on the covers (*sigh* I got to meet him at DragonCon this year) to the rich worlds and places inside the covers. I agree with the other books you listed too. I'll add Kristin Cashore's Fire to the list (can't say more since it's not released yet) and The Hunger Games, and Catching Fire. I really felt like I was IN the books because the settings were so well described.

As for real life settings, I'll second Appalachia in general, caves, (I LOVE caves) and add Alaska. That last is a place you just can't fathom until you've seen it. I'm not kidding, in Denali National Park you can leave your safe little cruise line hotel, walk two hundred yards and disappear. Disappear like they'll never find the body, the wild will swallow you disappear. It's amazing.

Tia Nevitt said...

You actually made me shudder! Great scene-writing!

Here in St. Augustine, we have a real-life dungeon that unfortunately was closed the last time I went there. It's at the Castillo de San Marcos, and you have to crawl on your hands and knees to get in there. Once inside, it is very clausterphobia-inducing. No windows, close ceiling and very humid. It was once the powder magazine. You can only stand up straight in the very center. You could easily go stark raving mad there. You can bet I've already written a scene in that dungeon for my time travel historical.

Another nearby fort, Fort Clinch, doesn't have any dungeons, but it has some great tunnels and nooks and crannies that you can climb into.

Chicory said...

A Grey, I've never been to Alaska, but it sounds amazing. I've heard there are times of year when the sun just travels in a circle without ever going under the horizon. Makes it sound like an alien plant or something.

Tia, I'm not sure if I'm jealous that you got to visit an actual dungeon or glad I wasn't there!

Chicory said...

Here's a piece of description I wrote for a Sleeping Beauty retelling. The story kind of failed because I'm not good at writing short stories. (They always read like novel outlines) but I love my descriptions.

There could only be one castle so overgrown with twisted thorns, the crimson roses blooming under a layer of ice.

The ice cracked as the vines drew apart to form a shimmering arch of icicle prisms, leaves, and vibrant roses. They framed the wrought iron gate as it swung slowly open.

The courtyard remained untouched by winter. Warm air, heavy with the scent of blossoms, swirled lazily around sleeping servants and nobles.

Tere Kirkland said...

Setting is one of my favorite parts of reading, and one of the best parts of writing. Chicory, I still see the grandmother's room from The Princess and the Goblins when I think about that book! One of my favorite settings in recent memory is the first description of Diagon Alley in the Sorcerer's Stone.

Tia Nevitt said...

Chicory, I liked the active verbs in your description. The roses framed. The scent swirled. Well done.

Now you've done it. I'm going to have to look for The Princess and the Goblins. And how could I forget Diagon Alley!

Rhiannon Hart said...

The Cave in Clan of the Cave Bear! Yes, totally great sense of place in the whole Earth Children's series. I think my favourite description has to be the valley after a violent storm in book two.

Setting is so important and often so difficult to make evocative and interesting. There's a real knack in getting it just right because it can so easily get ... you know ... boring if there's too much of it.

Chicory said...

Tia, thanks. :)

Rhiannon, I've never read the Earth Children series, though I've seen them around. Hmmm....

Tia Nevitt said...

I enjoyed the first two books of the Earth's Children series, and maybe some of book 3. But Jondalar ruined the series for me. I still haven't read Shelters of Stone.

Tia Nevitt said...

I looked for my description of my pyramid from my epic fantasy, but it's too scattered about to quote. At one point, I mention that it seems golden in the morning light, and at another point, I describe how it is silhouetted with lights at night. And in yet another place, I describe the inner structures.

Not very quotable!