I had a hiatus last week due to a family funeral. I traveled to a different part of the country and my experience of the gathering was enhanced by the setting, which made me think: Do settings influence your reading experience? I love books where settings are a character as alive and pulsing as any other member of a book’s cast. I particularly like authors who bring a location to life where I am able to connect and be engaged with my finger (really, my brain and heart) on the pulse of the place. Think Dorothea Benton-Frank and Pat Conroy.
Within any setting, I seek experiences: The feel of a misty rain or the exceptionally sunny September day in Seattle, the waves, cries of seagulls, and lobsters in Maine, or the relaxed gurgle of the French Broad River in North Carolina. In Kansas, I want to feel the wind blow (it blows all the time) and see acres and acres of corn or on a lazy summer day, relax and wait for sunflowers to turn their heads to the sun.
A setting must involve all the senses. As a reader, I want to hear the hurried pace of places like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco where horns honk and back-up buzzers interrupt sleep. I want to be swept away by street musicians’ melodies in the Vieux Carrè and tune into dialect. I marvel at how light plays a key role in any setting: a movie theater’s lighted marquees or a city’s streetlights, or the running lights of fishing trawlers reflecting on the water at night, or moonlight on a mountainside where no artificial illumination drowns out nature’s natural beauty. Every place has a scent, be it the lavender fields of California, the scent of Hawaiian Tropic on tanning teenagers sunbathing in Wisconsin’s Eau Claire Dells or Memphis in May. (It’s all about the B-B-Q, baby!) And for me when it comes to food, smell is a good dovetail with taste. However, let’s not forget settings have a feel: sand between the toes at the beach, scorching heat in the south, cold wet snow in the north.
Sometimes, I want the comforts of home and look for that in a setting. For many years, when I lived in the Midwest, I prowled bookstores reading the back page of many novels before making a single selection, usually seeking a story set in the south where the writer had artfully captured the true pulse of the region – not all southern accents sound the same, they are as varied as the terrain, from beaches to crop fields to mountains.
How important is setting to you? Do you gravitate to books set in a certain location? If so, what place on the map? Which of your sense draws you there the most? Lastly, if you have a favorite book where setting is a character, please let me know. I want expand my reading list of books with settings as characters.