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September 28, 2009

Sandra Carey CodyRecently my blog sister, Gretchen, shared with us how she used an old house to bring the past to life in her wonderful novel, GRACE RISING. Not too long before that, Joan posted about the importance of New York City in her WILD PIGS IN SNOW. Sharen uses the contrasting settings of several different countries to help define her characters in IN SEPTEMBER. And in Marielena’s DEADLY HABITS, a confused young woman’s nightmare is made more frightening because she does not recognize the room in which she awakes. If you follow other writer’s blogs, you’ll find this theme countless times. We all seem to be obsessed with setting.


How important is setting to a story? VERY. I find this especially true in a mystery, where an unthinkable act has been committed and ordinary people, nice people, are forced to look at the dark side of human nature, into the most hidden corners of their own hearts and to confront secrets they try to hide–even from themselves.

The setting for my latest novel, LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, is a small town, as picture-perfect as anything designed by Walt Disney. There are clean streets, lined with small shops, illuminated by vintage lampposts hung with colorful flowering baskets. Walking along these streets are smiling, open-faced people, civil and friendly, seemingly in control of their destiny. Can anything be this perfect? As a writer, I hope not. More accurately, I won’t allow it to be. There’s no story in perfection. I’m compelled to seek the snake in Eden.

My eye sweeps Paradise’s horizon and rests on a hill to the south. There, I see the town jewel, the pride and joy of its citizenry: an imposing, castle-like edifice containing over 40,000 artifacts documenting their history. Here are the tools and the toys, the gadgets and gimcrackery that tell how these people became who they are. There’s an exhibit showcasing the healing arts, another that features articles of transportation and communication, and countless examples of ingenious contraptions man has devised to make life better. There’s a replica of an old-fashioned schoolroom, with a slate resting sweetly on a small desk. The museum is full of inspiring displays that show items of progress and light. How nice. How comfortable. But for my purposes, not particularly useful. Let’s move on–to the very top level. There we find a gallows. Wonderful! Just what I was looking for. Could there be a more graphic reminder of humanity’s dark side?

Seeking a setting for my story, I find this juxtaposition of dark and light irresistible. I have to tinker with it, manipulate the sunshine and the shadow. I need to show how fine is the line between the two, how delicate the balance. How can I do this? I imagine our little town at the height of its perfection–a soft, sunny weekend in early May. Dogwood blossoms frame every view. Tulips nod on every lawn. The museum is at its most festive, all spruced up for Folk Fest. The civil, friendly people are in a celebratory mood, enjoying a well-earned holiday. A shout rings out: “Blood! It’s all over him.” Everything changes. The illusion of perfection is shattered–and the story begins.

Cruel? Maybe. I like to think of myself of a reasonably nice person, but as a writer, I love upsetting the applecart. I’m not alone in this. Think of all the stories set in amusement parks or empty theatres. It seems the brighter the setting, the more frightening it becomes when the lights are extinguished. Add a doll or a tiny kitten and it becomes even more threatening. Nothing produces a more delicious tingle down the spine than a scary setting. And there’s nothing more fun to create.



Doylestown, Pennsylvania

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2009 2:41 PM

    Sandy, great article. Loved the way you used ‘setting’ to discuss the various ways to utilize ‘setting’ in a story.

  2. September 28, 2009 5:55 PM

    Thanks, Loretta. And thanks for checking us out.

  3. September 28, 2009 7:12 PM

    Hi Sandra,

    Your blog about setting was fascinating. I’ve always thought setting was important but was never sure why. You made me see the reason for its importance. By the way, I recognized the Mercer Museum before I saw the name. I’ve only been there once but I’ll never forget it. I think that Museum could provide a thousand stories. I may have to pay it another visit.
    Best regards,

  4. KathleenAB permalink
    September 28, 2009 7:23 PM

    I love this. I put a lot of thought into setting my mystery novels. The idea of contrasting the darkness of a storyline with a friendly setting is wonderful. I also like to use immediate description (e.g. the weather at a particular time) to represent the mood of a scene.
    I think readers are as attracted to the setting of a mystery series as they are to the returning characters. Think Murder She Wrote. Didn’t you hate it when she was out of Cabot Cove?

  5. September 28, 2009 8:51 PM

    Thank you, Robin and Kathleen, for sharing your thoughts on setting. Robin, I definitely think you should pay The Mercer another visit. Maybe your motorcycle-riding sleuth could ride up from Delaware.

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