Balancing Balls and Weather Machines – A Look at Setting

by Janis Patterson

The temperature has been in triple digits for the last week or so, but in the wee hours of the morning it does fall to the low 90s…

And here I am, wrapped in furs in the middle of a snowstorm. Sadly, it’s only in my mind, as I am working madly to meet the deadline for my Christmas anthology novella. It’s hard to keep one’s mind on snow and cold and greenery and holly berries and sleigh rides when in spite of air conditioning and skimpy sundresses there is sweat dripping from the tip of your nose.
However – I have been complimented about how real and evocative of time and place my previous Christmas novella anthologies have been, and they were written under similar unseasonable (for the work) circumstances, so I guess I’ve been doing something right.

But isn’t that the job of a writer? To create a world into which the reader can immerse themselves, feeling, seeing, knowing what the characters feel? To transport the reader into that world?
Writers are creators of worlds, whether that world is a snowbound country estate, a shack beside the cool orange seas of a distant planet, a year distant in either the past or the future, or even the here and now of our own home street. And it is our job to take the reader there.

So how does one do it? That varies; if it is a here-and-now story set in a pleasant American suburb, that is something to which most readers can relate without too much exposition or world building, even if they do not now nor have ever lived in one. On the other hand, if the story is set on a distant star, where gravity is minimal and the three orbiting suns insure that darkness is an unknown concept, the writer has to do more spadework in creating this world. Same if the story takes place in a great stone castle in the Dark Ages; most people have at least seen pictures of castles, but have little to no knowledge of the socio-political-religious attitudes/beliefs which not are only reflective of the time but which formed the society and belief systems of the time.

Another thing that writers must be aware of is that once they have created this world – be it tidy American suburb, distant star or long-past history – they must be true to it both in construction and action. For example, there is no way I could believably have the characters in my Christmas novella go out and sunbathe in between snow flurries. If my story were set in the distant future where the weather was controlled and there were strict time systems for each variety of weather, it could be perfectly believable that my characters could turn off the snow, set the sun to ‘melt’ and then go out for a nice long sunbath… as long as I had set this part of my world up correctly.
And the final thing to remember is once your world is built and works and you are sure you will have no trouble in maintaining this soap bubble of belief, you must craft a story – a good story – that will fit into the strictures of these parameters and profit from an interaction with them.

Taken like that, the prospect of writing a novel becomes both overwhelming and terrifying, all too often leaving the poor writer feeling like a trick seal who must balance eight or ten balls on its nose. It’s a wonder anyone ever writes.

4 thoughts on “Balancing Balls and Weather Machines – A Look at Setting

  1. Good post! I’ve been having to stay conscious of the season in the book I’m wrapping up. I keep forgetting it is March and it’s still cold and snow in some areas where the book is set. And dead winter killed grass in lawns. There is a lot to juggle when writing.


  2. It does take research to set a scene in the far off future or way back when. I love the research. Enjoyed your article.


  3. Whenever I start a story/novel, I pick a season and remind myself to stick with it. There are certain things I can’t do in the winter or summer, and certain things that won’t happen in the fall or spring. Keeping the details straight is important, as you make clear, to keep the reader in John Gardner’s “continuous dream.” All that juggling.


  4. There’s no getting around it. Imagination can only go so far. Often a bit research is necessary so readers don’t get turned off by obvious inconsistencies. Sadly, I’m not one who enjoys research, so I just do enough to make what goes on seem plausible.


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