Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Settings & More

Scanned from The Orlando Sentinel, March 5, 2015
I'm sure most of you are wondering why an Orlando newspaper would post a picture from Texas. Well, that's because long before Disney discovered Central Florida, it was a rural area of orange groves and cattle ranches. A bad freeze in the '80s put paid to most of the orange groves (I recall the horror of driving I-4 and seeing mile after mile of dead trees). But the cattle ranches still thrive. They've just become overshadowed as Orlando transformed from a sleepy cow town to the resort capital of the world. The photo above is of a father and sons whose family has been working a Brahmin cattle ranch here in Central Florida since the 1930s. And are still at it. 

While we're on the subject, the Deseret Ranch (southeast of Orlando and owned by the Mormon church), is the largest cattle ranch in the United States. (According to Wikipedia.) When I was growing up, I was told the largest was the King ranch in Texas, followed by the Parker Ranch in Hawaii.) Whichever way you count, ranching is alive and well in Central Florida. We even have rodeos!


 A few weeks ago, Regency Researcher made a comment about Settings that set me to thinking the topic needed elaboration, so I'm going to attempt to make sense out of something that is approached so differently now than in the past. Not an easy task as I hadn't really stopped to think about it beyond recognizing that we can no longer start books with page after page of description, no matter how well done it might be. Modern readers want to plunge straight into the story, just as our Kindles open to Chapter One instead of having to plow through page after page of Copyright, Reviews, Acknowledgments, and (most idiotic of all) an index of chapters. (A few publishers still haven't got the message - they should see my scowl as I page through all that junk trying to find Chapter One!) So, yes, I'm as impatient as all the rest.

Setting the Scene at the Opening of a Book:

Amazingly, within a day or so of Regency Researcher's plaintive comment, I began a book by Jack Higgins that did everything an author should do when starting a book. And because the book was part of long-running series, he also managed to re-introduce some of his main characters - an absolute "must" for series authors.  I am going to reproduce the opening below as an example of both Setting and Character Introduction. Please note he begins with a Location line.

From The Judas Gate by Jack Higgins:

Washington, D.C. 
The Oval Office

    The Washington day in August had been almost subtropical, but by late evening an unexpected shower had cooled things.
    The Hay-Adams Hotel was only a short walk from the White House, and outside the bar two men sat at a small table on the terrace, a canopy protecting them against the rain. The elder had an authoritative mustache and thick hair touched with silver, and wore a dark blue suit and Guards tie. He was General Charles Ferguson, Commander of the British Prime Minister's private hit squad, which was an unfortunate necessity in the era of international terrorism.
    His companion, Major Harry Miller, was forty-seven, just under six feet, with gray eyes, a shrapnel scar on one cheek, and a calm and confident manner. A Member of Parliament, he served the Prime Minister as a general troubleshooter and bore the rank of Under Secretary of State. He had proven he could handle anything from the politicians at the United Nations to the hell of Afghanistan.
    Just now, he was saying to Ferguson, "Are you sure the President will be seeing us?"
   Ferguson nodded. "Blake was quite certain. The President said he'd make sure to clear time for us."
    Sean Dillon stepped out onto the terrace, glass in hand, and joined them, his fair hair tousled and his shirt and velvet cord suit black as usual.
    "So there you are."
    Before Ferguson could reply, Blake Johnson appeared from the bar and found them.
    He wore a light trench coat draped over his shoulders to protect a tweed country suit. He was fifty-nine, his black hair flecked with gray. As a boy, he'd lied about his age and when he'd stopped out of the plane to start his first touch of Vietnam, he'd been only eighteen. . . .

For other examples I went no further than the current pages of my Kindle. As a direct contrast to the Thriller pages above, here is the opening of a Regency Romance.

From  The Mudlark by Delle Jacobs:

    When the sun came out from beneath dense clouds, Izzy Daventry threw her shawl over her shoulders and set off from the manor across meadows that were slick from the last downpour. Within moments, the collection of children commonly known as Izzy's Urchins gathered around her, warbling like the first larks of spring, eager to see what adventure she had prepared for the day.
    She had plenty of time before her father arrived from Town. Even though he was expected by supper, Izzy knew her miscreant parent well. At his best, he wouldn't arrive before midnight. And even at that, he would need no more than the mere mention of Arthurian manuscript unearthed in Wales, and he would be off in that direction, forgetting he had ever meant to come home.
    Today, she proclaimed to her followers, was the first day of polliwog season. With the practiced eye of an expert polliwog hunter, Izzy paced along the bank, searching for a quiet pool with the characteristics for the proper breeding of tadpoles. Finding her spot, she set the children to searching the water.

Grace Notes:
I believe, in both cases above, you can see how the author uses bits of description to add color to the scene. In Judas Gate - the hotel, small table, canopy protecting against the rain, personal descriptions, etc. In Mudlark - sun, children, warbling, father's idiosyncrasies, polliwogs, quiet pool.
All the above work together to build a picture that creates a Setting. Little bits and pieces that fit together to make a portrait readers can visualize, rather than simply reading dialogue and action set against a blank canvas. (No hotel, no canopy, no children, no polliwogs, etc.) Without these descriptions, The Judas Gate would open with nothing more interesting than a group of men discussing a potential visit to the White House. We wouldn't know who they are or where they were. 

If the opening of The Mudlark had been less skilled, we might have assumed the girl was sitting quietly in a drawing room, wondering when her father was coming home. There would be no indication of either the father's whimsical nature or her own. In short, the scene would be dull as ditchwater instead of offering readers an intriguing look at an unconventional heroine, as well as giving us a peek into her father's temperament.

Did either author go on at length about Washington or about the country setting in England? No, but they got in enough essentials to draw a sketch that helped readers see the scene. Just a sketch, mind, not a full watercolor or some heavily framed 19th c. oil painting. Just enough to spark readers' imaginations and let them "see" that Setting. Yes, each reader will probably see something a bit different, but that's okay. 

A Setting within the body of a book: 

There are also moments within a story where an author can add to the overall impact of the book by including a bit of description not directly related to the plot. Enough to paint a colorful picture for the reader without bringing the story to a standstill or straying too far from action that moves the story forward. 

While doing a final edit on The Demons of Fenley Marsh this morning, I encountered the following passage, which I realized was a good example for this blog. 

Grace Note: the story is being told by a young widow, the mother of Chas, age eight. Nicholas, allegedly a "demon child," is nine.) 

From Chapter Four of The Demons of Fenley Marsh by Blair Bancroft:

    On such a remarkably fine day in late June, it was impossible to find even a hint of the sinister at Lunsford Hall. Nicholas began our tour of the park by leading us out a door on the west side of the house, past the kitchen garden, through a door in a sheltering brick wall, and into a garden where I simply had to stop and stare. In full bloom, it was magnificent, the borders and beds glowing under the summer sun, the sweet scent filling the air around us. Iris, lupine, poppies, peonies, delphinium, dianthus, roses of every variety and color, as well as flowers I could not name if my life depended on it. Though relatively small, it was simply glorious, far better than anything I had managed in Kent.
    Nicholas, with something between a sneer and an apology, addressed a remark to Chas out of the side of his mouth. “Ladies always like this sort of thing.”
    Chas, his face puckered in the guise of wise old man, stuck out his lower lip and nodded. To me, Nicholas added rather grandly, “Lunsford has tolerable gardeners. They do it all, you know. Mama and Grandmama don’t know one flower from another.” I had to turn my face away to hide my amusement. So far, the only wicked thing about Viscount Kempton was his unruly tongue.
    With a vague wave of his hand, Nicholas indicated that the stables and other outbuildings lurked behind a thin stand of middling-sized trees on the far side of the garden. And just beyond that, he warned, was a deep drainage ditch, straight as a die, leading to the salt marsh on the south. As we circumnavigated the house and walked along the great loop of the front drive, Nicholas pointed out a much broader ditch that ran parallel to the road that led to the village. We turned south toward the marsh, the hard-packed sand of the road soon dwindling into nothing more than a path. Lunsford Hall, it seemed marked the end of local civilization.
    To our right, however, was a low line of brilliant color, although we had to walk a good fifty yards, the path gradually descending toward the great salt marsh, before I could identify the source. The long splash of color came from a low-lying barricade of lethally spined wild roses which seemed to extend the entire southern width of the park, their single-layer blooms in red, rose, and white set against an impenetrable hedge of dark green leaves. When I finally raised my gaze from the colorful sight, nothing but salt marsh stretched out before me, with a thin blue line in the distance that might have been the sea, but which blended so well with the horizon that it was difficult to tell.
    I assumed this was the end of our tour, but Nicholas motioned us forward, plunging down a path so narrow between the short, sharp spines of the wild rose branches that we were forced to walk single-file. The sand softened, giving way with each step, our feet leaving great amorphous gouges as we plowed through it. And there it was—a vast expanse of sea grass and sand, marked by rivulets of water, some even broad enough to be called channels. Myriad small creatures scuttled across the exposed patches of sand. Tiny mounds of excavated grains marked dark holes where miniature crabs, and who knew what else, made their homes. Chas stared, eyes wide, mouth agape, clearly fascinated by this new world.

Grace Note:  Please note that in spite of fairly detailed descriptions of the garden and the salt marsh, the narration doesn't stray far from the story. We have dialogue from the boys, introspection from the heroine, and a picture of an area (the salt marsh) that is going to play an important part in the plot.

~ * ~
More setting examples in two weeks - after Mosaic Moments features the cover and blurb for The Demons of Fenley Marsh (March 14). 

Thanks for stopping by.

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.

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