Last week, I wrote a post about keeping your descriptions from sounding like a laundry list. Today I want to get into the details of describing setting.
Basically, I think setting should be treated as a character. Why? Because every setting is quirky, just like people. Every setting is also unique, just like people.
For example, I live in Chicago so my neighborhood is loud. There are always cars driving down the streets (bicyclists often swearing at them), horns honking, sirens blaring, the “L” train clattering by, etc. If I stick with this kind of description, it kind of seems like your typical rat race where everyone’s in a rush to get where they’re going and no one speaks to anyone at all. But that’s not the case.
My neighborhood almost feels like a small town, without the small town politics. Everyone walks everywhere because driving is such a pain, so we all go to the same places—as a result, we get to know each other. I look forward to going to certain businesses because I love the owners who run them. So, it kind of feels like a small town because I see people I know all the time. And yet it’s still different. The small town gossip doesn’t exist. No one cares if so-and-so got a new car that they probably can’t afford. Or if person A is making eyes at person B. There are enough other things going on that no one cares about these things.
My neighborhood has other quirks, too, specifically with transportation. I can’t count how many nice and helpful people I’ve met on the streets of Chicago. Honestly, this city is full of them—until they get behind the wheel of a car, or climb onto a bicycle. And then some of them turn into self-righteous, homicidal maniacs. Before anyone gets offended and yells at me, let me clarify that there are some very nice drivers on the street, and extremely polite bicyclists. But then there’s the handful that aren’t, and these people are certifiably insane.
Some drivers have a nasty habit of camping out in the right-hand turn lane at a red light, but then, when the light turns green, they slam the gas pedal and swerve left. Basically, they don't want to actually wait their turn to get through the stoplight, so they use this trick and often almost hit the person they're trying to cut off (or actually hit them, which happened to me once...grrr).
Then, there are some bicyclists who do things like blow through a red light (or stop sign) without looking, or even slowing down, and then cuss out the driver who almost hits them. Again, this isn’t everyone, but these people are out there. You know who you are. :) But once they get out of the car, or off the bicycle, they turn into normal people again. It’s bizarre.
Anyway, I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. If I go to the other end of Chicago, I’d find different quirks. If I go to a suburb, I’d find something else entirely because, guess what? Each setting is unique with its own quirks.
If your character’s home town only has one grocery store, what does it look like? Who works there? What items does it stock? Who runs it? What’s next to it? Who hangs out there, or doesn’t hang out there? How do people get there? These are the kinds of details that need to go into the setting of your story, and that’s what will bring it to life.
Choose a setting that you know well and describe it. Keep in mind that, for this exercise to work, you need to choose a setting that’s big enough to use in a story. In other words, your house isn’t going to cut it. :) Instead, choose a town, a specific neighborhood, a particular region in a country, etc. What quirks does this place have? What kinds of things happen here? What makes this place unique?
Feel free to share your work here in the comments, or keep it to yourself. Your choice.