During my recent spell at the Literature Centre in Fremantle, I really enjoyed talking about my book 1915 and about developing setting. One of the passages I read was from the opening pages. In this scene, Stanley (my main character) and his friends are climbing a pyramid to have a photograph taken. While Stanley is a fictional character, the photo he is posing for is very real. It is the famous photograph of the 11th Battalion AIF posing on the pyramid of Cheops, taken in January 1915.
When I was looking for a starting point for the novel, I realised that this photograph, which I had seen and marvelled at many times, was a perfect opening scene. Stanley, my character, is from WA and consequently a member of the 11th. If he were real, he would have been in that photo, in January 1915. A perfect starting point.
So Stanley climbs the pyramid and poses for the photograph. As he does, of course, he can survey the landscape, including the training camp where he is based. He can also give details about other elements of the setting – the sounds, the smells, physical sensations, emotions and more
I read this scene to seven different groups of students, and asked them what they learned about that setting from what I read. Here are some of the things they came up with:
- The sight of the pyramid Stanley is on, and the others nearby
- The view of landscape of the camp, with tents, Artillery Road, water reservoirs and more
- The sounds of the camp – men training, food being prepared, animals moving, hawkers nearby
- The smell of sweat on the men, who’d been training for months, and were busily climbing the pyramid
- The tastes of the dusty pyramid and the desert sand.
- The feel of the pyramid under Stanley’s hands and feet as he climbs
- The feel of the heat of the sun and the sweat trickling down his back
- The feeling of wonder in being n this place so far from home.
Every group found different things – because as well as what was in the words, their personal experiences made them imagine things which the words merely implied. For example, a student who had been to Egypt said she could taste and smell the food that the hawkers were selling.
The reading and discussion were precursors to a writing exercise in which the young writers wrote their own descriptions of favourite places. And what descriptions they were! Rich not just with visual description but with sensory detail which made me want to visit (or revisit) the places they described. (As an aside, these pieces, and those written by TYP participants from around the state will be displayed as part of WA Week Celebrations in June).
Think about your own writing. When you build a setting, are you evoking a range of senses? Remember your old science lessons where you learnt about the five senses (and then think beyond that to senses you may not have covered, including emotion, temperature and more). And how do you deliver this information? Is it all in a big block, or is the information gleaned from what the action?
Here are six tips for building setting:
- Give essential information, but don’t dump too much at once. Really think about which bits are essential to tell us, and which bits are implied (do we need to know the exact shade of green of the grass, or will we know the grass is green because it springs beneath the characters feet?).
- Trust your readers to build their own picture from key details (there is no mention of the smell of sweat, or of food, in the opening pages of 1915, but most readers said they were invoked).
- Try to activate senses other than sight, though visual details are still important. When discussing this opening scene I realised I missed an opportunity to focus on the sounds of the camp, although they were implied in what Stanley sees and thinks about.
- Consider the feelings the setting invokes in your character – and how to convey this to readers. I wanted them to feel Stanley’s sense of wonder at finding himself on a pyramid, in Egypt, such a long way from his life back home. I have attempted to do this by contrasting this photo sitting, with one he had back home the year before.
- Show don’t tell. While some description may be necessary, a lot of your setting will be built through action. Stanley is climbing a pyramid. His exertion, and the fact that he struggles to hear the sergeant’s orders down below, suggest the scale of the pyramid.
- Consider how much of your setting might be already familiar to your reader and hence not need a lot of description. When preparing these workshops on setting, I realised that my verse novels have very few descriptions of setting. When I thought about this, it was because the settings included family homes and school classrooms. A few key details were enough to invoke these settings for readers, whereas Egypt and Gallipoli, are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers, as well as the differences between the world of 1915 and of 2015.
One other thing I learnt from these workshops is that being the teacher doesn’t exclude you from learning things yourself. I am now busily thinking about setting in my work I progress.