How Does a Romance Writer Choose a Setting? by Nancy Brophy
I just finished judging a romance writer’s contest. Through a fluke, and my own lips betraying me by saying, “Yes, I’d be happy to” at the same time my brain was screaming “Hell, no”, I ended up judging seventeen entries.
In our race to be published, one can easily forget that craft is the cornerstone of this industry. Every good story must include emotion. If the reader doesn’t identify with the characters, your battle is lost. And that identification has to be established on page one.
Here’s the problem: you publish a mediocre story or you publish a good story, but not a great story. Your reader yawns and puts the book down. Even if your next story is better, you may not get that reader back. The difference between good and great is usually no more than a few sentences. Always it involves evoking emotion.
One of the most overlooked areas for this quest is in the details of the location. I know America has become homogenized and that you could take a snap shot of a strip mall on a tree-lined street in almost any town and everybody would recognize it as their own. But if you’re setting a story in Anytown, USA no one will care.
Think of any small town, maybe the one your grandparents grew up in, then think of Mayberry or Lake Woebegone. Can you picture the difference? Chicago verses LA? Paris verses Shanghai? Tara verses Manderley?
Each town, each location, must be unique. Some authors refer to it as another character in the story. It can be menacing or welcoming, but it must represent something identifiable to the reader.
In the movie, Silver Streak, after the train had torn through the station and ended up in a gift shop, the metal face of the engine had been ripped open into a ghastly grin. The train was an excellent example of another character in the story.
I love architecture. My characters are bigger than life. They don’t choose to live in average places. Don’t you think that a person who lives in a house like the blue one in the photo would have an interesting story? I do, too. In fact, I stopped on my way to a job interview to take pictures of this house, knowing one day it would show up in a book.
To sell the initial concept of Pixar, the film makers did a short of a mother desk lamp with a child desk lamp and a ball. When the ball deflated and the child desk lamp was broken-hearted, so were you. Pixar understood conveying emotion even through inanimate objects. It is why their movies have resonated with the public and why, to this day, Pixar still uses the desk lamp as part of their image.
This year’s contest had a lot of novice writers or writers making rookie mistakes. Stories had no distinct setting. Could the stories you love, the ones on your keeper-shelves, been just as good set in another location?
Is that like asking if the Flintstones could have lived on The Ponderosa, instead of Bedrock?
I think not and neither do any other romance writers I know.