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develop the setting

Develop the Setting: the Somewhere of Your Story

Writers seem to grasp that every memoir needs well-developed characters and actions, but the same is always not true when they are asked to develop the setting of their memoir.

Develop the Setting

The term “setting” is generally understood to refer to the physical “where” in which your memoir takes place. This can be a city or a rural neighborhood, a state or province, a country. This sense of setting includes a house and a room and a street. If your pen were a movie camera, the setting would be what your camera would eventually project onto the screen.

In this first sense, setting is a physical and tangible element. Even when the physical setting no longer exists, your obligation as a memoirist is to reproduce it in your pages as if it were still there. The reader feels as if s/he were in the midst of the world that once was.

The memoir setting includes both where and when your story occurs.

  • The where is the place in which the story takes place. It includes interiors and exteriors of buildings, the landscape, and the political demarcations (town, county, country, etc.). A story set in the prairie provinces of Canada will require different adaptations of its characters than one set in the bayous of Louisiana. A story set in the inner city of Detroit will call for different responses than a story set in the countryside of Ireland. Don’t be one of those writers who fail to make us experience the physical context in which the memoir characters live.
  • The when of your memoir includes the calendar time—July 9, 1977. Without dates, we are often at a loss as to how to interpret your story.

To develop the setting, you do best with sense details.

  • Always place your story in a recognizable setting. That is, use descriptive writing to show us where your story occurs! Let us see the double Cape, with its faded red paint and two dormers directly above the downstairs windows. Give us a view of the living room inside, to the left of the front entrance, where you were sitting in one of the stuffed wing-backed chairs. Let us notice you passing your finger over the worn armrest as you come to a frayed upholstery cord and thoughtlessly pull it. Point out the full-leafed maples and oaks (not just generic trees) outside the clear window next to your chair and hear the car that is crunching stones in the driveway. Let us taste the pastries—cobblers and brownies and molasses cookies—that you are being served on large oval china that belonged to the grandmother of your hostess.
  • Without the sort of tangible physical setting provided in the scene I’ve just mentioned, your story remains an ethereal piece—inhabited by phantoms lost in a conceptual space. Your story needs to have a sense of place that is very real, very tangible. Descriptive writing full of sensory details will do that for your memoir setting.

But, there’s another sense when you develop the setting…

Setting in a memoir can also refer to a whole series of abstract factors that are equally critical to understanding—and to interpreting—your story.

This could be

  • The socio-economic status of your family, especially in relation to the community, the town, in which you lived. Let’s look at the person’s economic status: is she the wife of an upper-income lawyer or a single woman who works as a secretary at a hardware store in a small town; is he the third son and sixth and last child of a mill worker and a store clerk or the only child of a heart surgeon father and corporate lawyer mother?
  • the time frame (the era: the 950s, the 1970s),
  • the religion or religious group you were part of.
  • your ethnic or racial group in relation to the community in which you lived. What is your character’s cultural community: Yankee, Jewish, Lithuanian, African, or Chinese? Show us how the person interacts with this background.
  • the education of the various characters—or lack thereof. Are we looking at college graduates or grade-school dropouts?
  • the history of the town, state, country. This is a big picture element.

Writers must pay attention to these spiritual, historical, cultural, and economic settings in order to effectively convey full characters!

Without these details, your characters will otherwise remain stick figures without any contexts–or, to use another image, a fish out of water. By following the guidelines I have suggested, you can succeed at writing for a larger audience.

To help you develop the setting, let me unpack both kinds a bit more

Authors frequently assume either the universality of their experiences or the lack of interest readers will have in their settings—especially the abstract, intangible settings. Consequently, authors omit including the abstract setting in much detail. The writer might share, “We were Congregationalists,” but not demonstrate what that meant in her life—whether a lot or little. How it shaped her and opened her u or closed her down. Your experience is not generally understood without details that particularize the experience.

The setting places your characters in a context and makes them “real” for the reader.

As you become more adept at writing, you will realize that adding these details is not necessarily a matter of adding lengthy descriptions and footnotes—although both of these may be used. Much of what you need to add can be done with phrases and single sentences.

Listen now to how I did this in the following scenes:

  • … her voice maintaining the Italian cadences of her youth. [This tells us that this woman is not from the dominant American culture.]
  • My eyes scanned the worn linoleum rug in our living room as the visitor asked for a donation. [This person is poor and is probably in an embarrassing situation where he will have to say “no.”]
  • … scents of cooking wafting from both the upstairs and thee downstairs apartment. [This is not a suburban setting!]

In conclusion

As part of the memoir setting, we need to know the entire context that surrounds your character. Again, these contexts include: physical, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, economic, educational, professional, occupational, personal, and public. These aspects of your characters must be presented—and explored—through descriptive writing.

The memoir setting is a critical aspect of your memoir. It can change your story from a parochial one that is of interest only to family and friends into a story that captivates the reader with its depth of psychology, and its exploration of human nature becomes the voice of a generation and of a shared experience.

If you would like to explore receiving help with your setting—or any aspect of memoir writing, we offer a 30-minute complimentary get-to-know-you coaching consultation.

Good luck as you develop the setting of your stories!

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