24 October 2020

Setting as Character...Really? Bad Girl Makes a Case (and gives an example)

What do we mean by "Setting as Character?"  Students always ask me that, and here's what I tell them:

Setting is important in helping to establish the mood of your story.  It should be treated with as much attention as you would give any other character.

In the 14 week Crafting a Novel course I teach at Sheridan College, we spend most of one class talking about setting.

One of the first things you must decide when writing your novel, is the reality of your setting.  Is it a real place that exists today, or that did exist in another time?  A place you can research?  Or is your setting completely from your imagination?

The trouble wtih many beginning writers is they set their novels in 'Anytown USA.'  Thus, no character, no unique feel to the place...the 'why it is different from everywhere else?' is missing.

For this reason, I usually opt for a real setting, even in fantasy novels.  No, you may not be able to go back to 4th century West Country in England (when WILL they come up with a time machine that works, already?  I'm waiting...)  But you can visit the area now, take in the beauty of the countryside, and particularly, visit the local museums to get more details on how people lived and how the land looked at the time.

That's what I did.  Here's how the location for my time-travel trilogy came about.

 All of our families have pasts.  Have you looked into yours to see if there might be inspiration there?  That's how I found my setting for Rowena Through the Wall.  In a corner of England called Shropshire, more known for sheep than people, there once stood a Norman castle of fantastic 'character.'

The original castle, erected after Harold fell to William in 1066, went to ruin in the early 1500s.  The new abode, Hawkstone Park, was built in 1556; it was forfeited in 1906 to pay off the gambling debts of my rakish relative.

My late cousin showed me around the countryside.  Tony Clegg-Hill was the previous Viscount of Shropshire and Shrewsbury.  I adored him.  He had that particular dry British wit that reminded me of David Niven.  It was his great-grandfather who lost the castle.

Tony would regale me with anecdotes about the family villains: the original Viscount Huel, who was basically a henchman for William the Conqueror.  More recent rogues like Sir Rowland Hill gambled away anything that could be taken as a stake.  It's a damning history, but a vibrant one.  But not all the family were black sheep.  One Lord Hill distinguished himself as the second in command to the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo.  When Wellington was made Prime Minister in 1924, Hill succeeded him as commander in chief of the British army.

So when it came to writing Rowena Through the Wall, I leaned back into the family history.  The original Normal castle with it's rounded turrets, crenellations and merlons had been waiting for a writer to bring it back to life.  Rowena walks through the wall to her ancestor's land, and she falls in love with it too.

"Outlander meets Sex and the City"
"Game of Thrones Lite"
Rowena Through the Wall was featured on USA Today, and was an Amazon Top 50 Bestseller (all books.)


  1. Some places just call you to write about them. And how lucky to have a witty British relative to take you on the tour!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Eve! I'm sure all of us could find a place in our family's past that is worth a novel setting.

  3. That is cool, Melodie, not counting the scalawags, the one who bet the house and lost, and before him, the bozo who let the original pile go to ruin. It's not like he couldn't visit Home Depot once in a while!

  4. The accommodations in many of those castles weren't the least bit romantic. Just to heat the damn things must have taken a village of woodchoppers. And human waste disposal… there was an architectural conundrum.

    I often preferred the plots and characters of other novelists, but Edward Marston had a knack for bringing out the gritty nature of existence in his chosen era. Life in olden days was a dim, dusty, dirty experience. Cheers!

  5. Leigh, I love Edward Marston! I particularly like his ship detective series from the turn of the century. Yes, I try to be more than the usual accurate when it comes to writing historical/fantasy alt world fiction. IN Rowena Through the Wall, she is pregnant by the end of the first book, and apparently that is really unusual in fantasy fiction. Made for some interesting considerations, that's for sure. Thanks for commenting.

  6. What a family tree!! Great article, Melodie. Lots to think about.

    1. Thanks Lynn! I'm finding it really challenging setting this current novel on a ship. Talk about a different setting in both time and place.

  7. For me, the setting makes for a big portion of the fun. Great post, and thanks for getting my imagination going,

  8. Bob, thanks for commenting! I am having a fun time setting a novel on a ship from the 1920s - there may be another post about that soon :)


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