The Setting & Context series of articles is concerned with “setting” in fiction. What is it? How is it done? How important is setting to story and character and reader enjoyment?
Over the coming months, I will be peeking behind the scenes of fictional landscapes from the comfort of our armchairs, some favourite novels in hand, in search of answers to these questions.
Let me begin with a brief introduction to setting and context in fiction.
There are three crucial elements to a story: character, conflict and context.
Character provides the heart, conflict provides the story, and context is the framework within which all the elements of fiction bounce and jostle together to become a unique and engaging read.
Context = your fiction’s physical setting + the rules of your fictional world
Context is a boundary against which your characters and conflicts can be pushed, or a safe-haven in which they can flourish.
Imagine a squash court. Its walls cannot be climbed over or under, it has no doors and its ceilings have no vents. Now let’s imagine what its walls are made of.
The walls could be physical:
- a jail cell
- a panic room
- a five-star ocean liner
- deep space
- a country village
- the outback
The walls could be social:
- gender or class rules (e.g. regency fiction)
- religious doctrine
- political dogma
- peer-group pressure at school
Or the walls could be choices/character traits:
- a marriage
- a stubborn trait (pride? prejudice?)
- a last chance
- being addicted to prescription pain killers
- a vow of chastity (e.g. Thornbirds)
It’s an exciting way to look at a squash court, isn’t it? You can already see how characters are trapped inside their contextual walls with their conflict – they cannot walk away, they must work it through, and this is why the strength and believability of the context and setting in fiction is crucial.
Now it is time to pry open some book covers and seek out the craft authors have used to make their context and settings strong and believable. This month I am taking you on a day trip to historic Bath, in nineteenth century England, and our travel companions are the grand dames of regency fiction Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.
“Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” (Austen, The Complete Works 2014)
Introducing our travel companions
Jane Austen lived in Bath from the year 1800 (when she was 25) to the year 1809, the very year the nineteenth century began. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, both published posthumously in 1817, included the prosperous town of Bath in their settings. Persuasion is set in 1815, and Northanger some fifteen years earlier. Austen was writing a landscape she knew, and an era of which she was part.
Craft tip: writing a landscape you know will ensure your details are correct.
Georgette Heyer was born two years after the end of the nineteenth century, and over 125 years after Jane Austen, and began writing her much-loved regency romances in 1921. Unlike Austen, she did not have personal knowledge of the landscape and society of the era in which she wrote, and conducted thorough research.
I found this endearing snippet in an article by Brenda Niall in the Sydney Morning Herald, who was reviewing a biography of Georgette Heyer.
“ …she prided herself on the accuracy of her period detail and was disdainful about her prolific competitor, Barbara Cartland, who she described as an illiterate plagiarist. No one faulted Heyer’s research on Regency manners and idiom, snuffboxes, staging posts, pantaloons and Hessian boots.” (Niall 2012)
Craft tip: writing a landscape you do not know, or from an era you are not from, will require thorough research from reputable sources.
Let us peek into some text, now and consider some strategies our two travel companions employed to create their context and setting.
Specifics, not generalisations, anchor Heyer’s sense of place in her stories: “Bath was well provided with libraries, and these were considered to be among its most agreeable lounges … Fanny divided her patronage between Duffield’s in Milsom Street, and Meyler & Sons, which conveniently adjoined the Great Pump Room. Here, every morning, she dutifully drank the waters, declaring that she derived immense benefit from them. Serena agreed to this, with suitable gravity, but thought privately that the orchestra, which discoursed music there, the shops in the more modish streets, and the constant procession of new faces, were of even greater benefit to her spirits.” (Heyer 1967)
Craft tip: specifics, not generalisations. Visit Meylor & Sons, not a library.
Notice how the description of the Great Pump Room provides more than a sense of place; the detail of the music, the faces, serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of both Serena and Fanny. Serena’s “suitable gravity” is showing us that she is both discerning and affectionate. Fanny’s character is portrayed as one who takes pleasure in light-hearted social pursuits.
Craft tip: use the way in which you introduce setting as a way to deepen the reader’s understanding of character.
Besides being fun, maps provide veracity to an author’s tale. Consider the modern map of Bath below. Two hundred years after Jane Austen’s descriptions of Bath were written, we can find a map such as this on the internet and locate places she has described:
- The Great Pump Room featured in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, and the Assembly Rooms featured in Persuasion can be found between North Parade and Bath Abbey.
Craft tip: give your setting authenticity by including exact geographical markers. Pin a map to your noticeboard: make sure a house on Green Park Road really does command a view of the River Avon.
“… the creation of place relies not just on physical details of geography, but on shared habits, customs, and values: a constellation of social actions…” (Sutherland 2018)
When setting is interwoven successfully into a novel, it makes for a richer and more satisfying whole. Think sherry in a trifle, or ginger in a curry. The dishes are edible without, but are they delectable? Do they bring us back, spoon in hand, for seconds? Do they transport us to an English country vicarage, or a street market in busy Mumbai?
Authors interweave context into craft to provide this richness in their fiction.
Metaphor & Simile
Pastoral life, agriculture, Christianity, the natural world … these are rich sources of metaphor in regency fiction. Consider (and as modern readers, it is hard not to shudder when we do) the horse metaphors used to describe women in regency fiction: fillies, “if you failed to respond to my hand on your bridle”. (Heyer 1967) Up in the boughs provides a metaphor from the natural world to describe someone who has been offended by a comment or action. Use language of the era such as in this comment on a piano performance: “my playing is no more like hers than a lamp is to sunshine.” (Austen, Emma 1953)
The weather, too, can be a rich source: “Austen likes to make her plots turn on the weather. Having arranged her characters and defined their situations, having planned her love stories and hatched the misunderstandings that might impede them, she lets the weather shape events. It is her way of admitting chance into her narratives.” (Mullan 2013) On reading this, my mind flew way from Bath to Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, who sends her beloved Jane off to visit Mr Bingley in inclement weather. Forced proximity has not become a romance trope for nothing!
Craft tip: use comparisons which are rooted in the era you are seeking to depict.
Point of View
Jane Austen’s novels have an omniscient point of view. Consider this passage from Persuasion: “It sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost. It was so with Elizabeth, still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago, and Sir Walter might be excused, therefore, in forgetting her age, or, at least, be deemed only half a fool, for thinking himself and Elizabeth as blooming as ever …” (Austen, The Complete Works 2014)
Georgette Heyer, writing 125 years later, employs a similar strategy: “Two ladies were seated in the library at Milverley Park, the younger, whose cap and superabundance of crape (sic) proclaimed the widow, beside a table upon which reposed a Prayer Book; the elder, a Titian-haired beauty of some twenty-five summers, in one of the deep window-embrasures that overlooked the park.” (Heyer 1967)
These omniscient introductions, particularly in Heyer, who is emulating an era not her own, and the wordy styles in which they are written, inform the reader within a few words that we have travelled back in time to the stiff, formal and class-driven world of nineteenth century England.
Craft tip: are there tropes which readers expect in the context and setting you have chosen? Be aware of what they are, then heed or discard them as you will.
Anyone who has read Austen or Heyer will have noted the sheer weight of each paragraph. Other contrasts to modern fiction writing include huge, huge, passages of dialogue, and a fondness for exclamation marks.
Should the modern author adhere to this format? In a quick survey of two books from my shelf (by Anne Gracie and Anna Campbell, two of my favourite Australian writers of historical romances), the answer is … perhaps not. Modern readers, particularly those reading on a kindle, are accustomed to shorter paragraphs, less exuberant exclamation marks on the page, and passages of dialogue which do not render one breathless after attempting to read one out loud.
Craft tip: perhaps aim for the feel of the era, without feeling you have to adhere strictly to a writing style which may not suit the modern reader.
Toot toot, all aboard, mind the gap!
I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey into context and setting via Bath, England.
Next month I’ll be heading to New York for a peek into the present reading Joanne Dannon and her novella published in New York Romance, and into the future reading (okay, re-reading) J.D. Robb, author of the fabulous In Death series. Hope you can join me!
Wishing you bon voyage
Austen, Jane. 1953. Emma. London: Collins.
Austen, Jane. 2014. The Complete Works. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Heyer, Georgette. 1967. Bath Tangle. London: Pan Books.
Mullan, John. 2013. What Matters in Jane Austen. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Mullen, John. 2008. How Novels Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Niall, Brenda. 2012. “Of Froth and Ferocity.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Sutherland, John, ed. 2018. Literary Landscapes: Charting the real-life settings of the world’s favourite fiction. London: Modern Books.