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Emotional Landscapes

Fiction writers, how do you use setting to tell your stories? As I go through major life changes (mainly, bringing Nux Gallica into the world), I've been musing on setting--the settings in my stories and also the setting of my own life, which influences what and how I write (not just how often I can do it!).

I find that when I better understand my own feelings and opinions about my material, it frees me to write with a depth and clarity that I can never find when I haven't examined my personal, social, cultural, and political relationship to the subject. Because whether we are aware of it or not, our own "settings" as authors, both external and internal, shape what and how we write. This is true not just for blatantly political works like satires. Our beliefs about things like human nature, love, the earth, men and women, class and power, values, and morals set the stage for how we develop characters and draw plotlines.

The characters in my novel-in-progress, Briars and Black Hellebore, keep evolving as my understanding of people and my life experience evolves.

One way I like to examine "where I am" inside my head is by paying attention to those magnificent emotional landscapes, the spaces in dreams. During my pregnancy, I had recurring dreams about alien landscapes. Usually I was exploring them by flying over them at exhilarating speeds. I was shocked to come across Bjork's video for Joga on YouTube, which I don't recall ever having seen in my life! The footage of Icelandic geography looks almost exactly like these dream sequences of mine.

In dream interpretation, it doesn't so much matter what you dream about as how you feel about it. My feelings in this set of dreams included wonder, fascination, fear, thrill, hope, and yearning. It makes sense to me that exploring a foreign or alien landscape refers to entering a new phase of my life as a mother. When I had a chance to reflect upon those feelings I was having about motherhood, I went back and added new depth to a character in my book who becomes a mother for the first time.

Another recurring dream of my pregnancy that has continued is a dream about a house. It's not exactly my real house, though it usually has elements of my actual home. In each dream, the house is a little different--rooms are added, removed, or changed around--and the symbolism about my life and my feelings about life stand out. During pregnancy, I kept dreaming about moving into a larger house or adding on to my house--or just stumbling across undiscovered rooms! I took this to be a recognition that my life is expanding with a new "addition" to the family. In some of the dreams early in my pregnancy, I would find rooms filled with children's toys. Right before I found out the baby's sex, I dreamed that I found one room filled with toys and another filled with jewelry. Soon after, we confirmed we were having a girl!

Whenever I read fiction, I can't help peering through the words at the shadowy figure of the writer, whose imagination and use of language and literary devices have been influenced not only by literature but by her or his personal feelings and beliefs, which are heavily influenced by the people and place in which the writer lives and works.

So I think carefully about my own settings, too--the worlds I build in my stories and also the world I live in, physically, mentally, and emotionally. All these emotional landscapes flow together to give life to our stories.

How aware are you of your settings? How do you choose which details and descriptions to include in your fiction? Is it something you plan carefully, or does it come to you more intuitively? Do you ever discover new things about yourself or your characters in the worlds you build on the page?


  1. I give a lot of thought to setting. In fact, it's usually intrinsic to the plot. I try to include just enough detail to evoke something the reader likely already 'knows' or has seen of a place (my settings are in the real world).

  2. I'm very aware of setting in my stuff.

    I'll image google pictures of places that I think resemble my fictional setting, print them, and make a collage out of them.

    I try to limit my descriptions of them to a few, hopefully evocative sentences because I know want to keep the story moving along.

  3. JB, that's a great way to bring readers into a setting without getting bogged down in detail--remind them in small ways of something they can already picture. That works for familiar, real-life settings.

    Cynthia, a collage is a good idea! I've done that sort of thing when I was working on a story about Rome. I made a collage out of a map of Rome, postcards from Rome, and photos that I took when I was there. I included only images that evoked the mood I wanted to set. I can see how a collage could also be a great tool for creating a fictional setting.

  4. Bjork is the perfect artist to reference when you're talking about this. She always seems to be so tied in to where she is. I started to really notice the impact of my own setting on my writing and painting when I was living in Davis, CA. That area was different from what I was used to in Los Angeles, and my work completely changed. Now, I get really excited whenever I have the chance to make art in a new place. I love to see how my surroundings affect me. I love that my world controls the product like that, that it's not all internal.


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