Ambit Creative
Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing, and is a fiction and nonfiction book editor, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele writes for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals. Her stories have appeared in The Circle, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Miranda Literary Magazine,,The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Trillium, the Italian-American literary journal Pyramid and an anthology for Fairfield University. She won Poetic Voices of America's editor's choice award, and presents the editing and writing workshops for libraries and other venues. She is a nominated member of Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. She's also working on a new novel. Visit her website at: Adele Annesi, Facebook, LinkedIn, Redroom, Twitter, and Word For Words.

The Importance of Settings: Editing for a Sense of Place

Prong, pavé, channel, bezel—how a diamond is set and how it’s displayed make all the difference. It’s the same with the setting of a story. Editing for a sense of place is important, but how do you know which details to put in and which to leave out?

Many great writers, like best-selling novelist Richard Price, consider setting—or settings, if there’s more than one—important enough to be treated as characters. In a 2008 interview with The Writer, Price said, “Place is a character, too, and if you know that character intimately it makes everything else you do easier.” Some writers even include setting in plot treatments. Some dismiss it as unimportant. But consider this from literary agent par excellence Donald Maass: “Relegate setting to the backseat or make it the chassis on which everything else rides, but do not ignore it.” Why? Because if you don’t consciously deal with your story’s setting, it will take its own shape, or misshape, instead of being shaped by you, the writer.

To address this dilemma, keep in mind that the setting of your story, whether novel or shorter piece, isn’t there to prop up the tale but to enhance it the way black velvet shows off a diamond. If you were showcasing an onyx or smoky topaz, you’d select a different type of cloth. The choice of black or midnight blue velvet for diamonds isn’t an accident—these colors show the stone in sharpest relief until all you notice is the diamond. Even the texture—velvet is thick and has a nap—makes the most of the diamond’s facets. The same principles apply to your story.

There’s a balance between a story’s setting and everything else—characters, plot, theme and dialogue. If your setting is weak, your characters, story, and point won’t pop, but will fade into oblivion. If the setting is overpowering, you may be lauded on your ability to write descriptive prose, but the outcome will be the same—everything else will pale by comparison.

When editing for place, ask yourself these questions: Does my setting reveal and not obscure my characters? Does it propel the plot without getting in the way? Is it original, not clichéd? Does it provide a backdrop for conversations and dialogue that raises scenes in the reader’s mind like filigree for an antique stone?

Let’s start with characters. If I tell you my protagonist is from Cambridge, whether it’s Massachusetts or England, the setting immediately conjures images of wealth. Even if your story is a Good Will Hunting–like tale, the choice of setting instantly sets up the piece, and it’s up to you as the author to make sure it

delivers. The key is to consider what you want to achieve. A setting like MIT for Will Hunting sets the main character in stark relief with his surroundings. A setting like the prairie for the Little House on the Prairie series complements the characters as an indispensable part of their lives. It’s no accident that in the Will Hunting story he leaves the area, whereas in the Little House stories, the characters stick around.

One prime example of a setting that moves the plot along without getting in the way is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Talk about settings, all Southern, that propel plot—Tara moved the story along like a locomotive.

To determine whether your setting is original, consider Life of Pi, in which the setting was a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. The setting was definitely contrived, yet it worked because it served the story’s plot and theme, as seen in the ending. That’s a primary way to determine whether an odd setting works—whether it complements the ultimate direction of your piece.

Last, does your setting provide a backdrop for dialogue that makes the scenes memorable, for good reasons? Consider Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. In this memoir-style novel set in twentieth-century Japan, the setting forms the story’s primary backdrop, making it elemental in what the characters say and how they say it. Here, intimate knowledge of place made the difference in whether the story is believable or not.

For all these reasons—characters, plot, theme and dialogue—details are important, though not in a random way. Remember the diamond analogy: Setting should enhance the stone, not obscure it. Without the right details on geography, locale, time of day, and season, it’s hard to imbue a piece with depth. But establishing a strong sense of place rewards readers with the feeling of being there and the writer with a sense of accomplishment. Pulitzer prize–winning journalist turned crime novelist John Sandford says settings don’t have to be exact, just “credible for [the] neighborhood.” Ernest Hemingway called weather “very important.” Some disagree, but consider what a Victorian mystery would be, or wouldn’t be, without it.

Editing Prompt: Select a piece you wrote more than a month ago, and consider how to revise the details of the setting to highlight the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the story. Also see my Word for Words blog.