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.

If this colorful dollhouse was where your heroine lived, how would the hero describe it when he first saw it? And what would he really think?

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.










Posted on October 14, 2011, in General and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I signed up for 10 and got 14. So I thought okay I can do 14 then a mutual friend of ours was struggling with getting her four done due to being overworked at work and taking too much on in addition. So I did three of hers. Usually i get a bunch of entries that I really like, but this year I didn’t. However, every time I judge my writing gets stronger. It’s a trade off.


  2. Well said, Nancy! I love using setting and even weather to convey or contrast mood and/or character. A writer doesn’t have to go into minute detail to describe a room or setting, a few well thought out words could be enough.

    17 manuscripts?? You *are* insane, woman!


  3. Well said and I love the examples. There’s nothing like judging contest entries to bring some primary points on craft to the forefront but I’m not a glutton for punishment and 7 entries was enough for me.


  4. Very good comments, Nancy. I completely identify with this problem. The first two novels i completed were read by a wonderful SF author I know. At the end of each one he said, “Great ideas, love the characters, but I’m really tired of all the action taking place in a white box.” That white box was my lack of setting. I always had a line or two, but the setting wasn’t really a part of the book–it should echo theme, mood, and as you said, become a character itself. Once I got that craft moment down, it was then on to others. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.

    By the way, judging 17 manuscripts is WAY too many. You really are crazy. 🙂


  5. Most certainly, you are so right about this Nancy. I think not, along with you.


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