During Thanksgiving week, my husband and I visited Chaco Canyon near Farmington, NM, and Mesa Verde near Cortez, CO. My main purpose for exploring these sites was for book research. I wanted to see, to walk and climb through, to smell and touch and admire the remnants of these cultures to better develop and describe the lifestyle from which Akuleh, protagonist of the SEVENTH SHAMAN series, has come.
Standing on a structure overlooking the plazas of Pueblo Bonito, I imagined Old Trade Center in Awénasa City on market day. Studying excavated kivas, I tried to imagine ceremonies once conducted there. I definitely felt a lingering sense of sacredness.
I scrutinized the stonework, especially at Chaco, which consisted not of large
blocks but often of tiny chips meticulously placed: several inches of stone slivers alternating with a layer of brick-sized squared stones that served not only to knit the wall together but created an aesthetically pleasing pattern.
I admired ceiling beams in a restored kiva in Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde. The juniper logs appeared almost woven, like an inverted basket, to support
the stone-and-soil roof. Not only practical but beautiful. I appreciated the ingenuity behind ventilation ducts that admitted fresh air but diverted fierce drafts entering ceremonial and living spaces. Most of all, I marveled at the inventiveness of people who could twist yucca fibers and turkey feathers into winter moccasins, who grew cotton before they acquired sheep, and for whom rock-climbing was as necessary an ability as walking, to work farms planted on top of the mesas whose wind-carved alcoves sheltered their homes.
I gained numerous insights, which spawned ideas for enriching Akuleh’s fictional culture and made me rethink several points. I experienced the physical aspects with sufficient depth to use multiple senses in my descriptions. I jotted lots of notes and took loads of photos.
Why all this effort, exhilarating though it was, to create the setting for a few novels?
Because Setting ranks right up there in importance with Character and Conflict in structuring a viable story.
Setting shouldn’t only give your characters the framework in which they move—though it certainly does that. Setting defines your characters, whether it’s their native habitat or a new, strange place into which you thrust them. Setting isn’t simply the tangible details—the tastes, sounds, and textures you describe for your readers in such a way they feel they’ve stepped into the story with your protagonist—but also social expectations. Bilbo Baggins, for example, was considered odd by the hobbits of the Shire because he left its pastoral charms to go adventuring with dwarves. And Paul Atreides quickly learned how nuances of word and deed could mean life or death among the Fremen of Arrakis.
Your story’s Setting can fill other roles besides defining your characters. Sometimes it can become a character itself, an antagonist or ally that hinders or helps your protagonist. Hogwarts, with its quirky moving staircases, hidden doors that reveal themselves only when properly asked, and its tangle of tunnels and dungeons, seems often to have a mind of its own.
Your Setting can even be the source of your character’s conflict, whether you’re writing a Man vs. Nature story, of survival and overcoming physical perils, or a Man vs. Society story in which characters conflict with the norms of their school, their tribe, or their nation.
You don’t have to spend days climbing the turrets of crumbling castle towers or sleeping under the stars on the open prairie to flesh out a strong Setting—though I highly recommend it if you can! But you do need to consider all the ways your Setting should influence your story.