In my behind the scenes post on Somewhere Only We Know’s setting, I wrote about how the clearing in the forest’s inspiration came from a classroom rather than nature. Even so, nature has a huge role in my book. Like Frankie, I feel closer to God in nature, and so when I was trying to create a space for all of the girls to come together, a clearing with a tree came to mind.
I know very little about trees, so I didn’t have a specific tree in mind when I first wrote the book. I just pictured it to be big and leafy. I chose which type of tree it was later on when I discovered what the name of one of the main characters— Lindsey—meant: “from the island of linden trees.” I learned that linden trees are large and deciduous, with a sturdy trunk and lots of leaves. A linden tree was the perfect, shady tree I needed for the girls.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak was a huge influence on me when writing Somewhere Only We Know. Speak is about a young girl starting high school with everyone hating her because she called the cops at the big party over the summer. What no one knows is that she called because she had been just been raped. And no one knows this because she can’t speak about it. Melinda has trouble talking at all. After her rape, she fell into silence. But then her art teacher assigns her a subject to make art with for the entire school year—trees. Melinda has trouble creating art about trees at first, but she is inspired by her teacher’s words that became the epigraph of my novel, and she finally starts to heal:
Trees are powerful. Trees are a beautiful part of nature. They are not perfect. They have their scars. But they also provide comfort and shade and homes for animals. Trees show me God, and, in my novel, they show Frankie God as well.
The setting of a story is so much more than just where the story takes place. If done well, setting can help create the mood and tone of the story and can even act as a character itself. Setting is not just the physical space in which the story takes place, but the time period and culture. And as Cheryl St.John explained in Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, when characters react to their setting, we can learn about both it and the characters themselves in how the interpret what they see.
As I lean towards science fiction and dystopian stories, I’ve always had a particular interest in setting as world building is so important in those stories. I love it when a book can take me to a different place and make it feel real.
Somewhere Only We Know is a contemporary young adult novel, so there were no different worlds or societies to explore. It was just a simple small town, and, though I didn’t say where in the book, I always imagined it to be in northwest Ohio as I lived there for many years. A lot of readers are familiar with this kind of simple small town. However, setting is just as important in this book as it is in any science fiction tale.
There are only three main settings in Somewhere Only We Know: Frankie and Susan’s house, Frankie’s school, and the clearing in the forest. Each of these settings are extremely important in creating the tone of the story.
Frankie and Susan’s house is a simple two-story with an attic. The downstairs is plain, with the living room to the right of the front door and the eating area and kitchen to the left. The garage connects through the kitchen. The stairs are in the middle, which leads to the two bedrooms upstairs—Frankie and Susan’s on the right and their father’s on the left—with a bathroom in the hallway and stairs leading to the attic. The attic has a wood floor and low ceilings, and it is the only part of the house that is impeccably organized, thanks to their deceased mother. Frankie and Susan’s room is particularly messy and disorganized, which reflects the disorder in their lives.
All of the scenes including violence take place in the house, which makes it the most depressing of the three settings. Frankie does not think of it as a safe place, and so she doesn’t feel a lot of attachment towards the house. The exception of this is the attic, as that was her mother’s space. Her mother kept the attic perfectly organized and had a rocking chair up there where she would read from her Bible and look at old pictures. Frankie can feel a connection to her mother in this space, so she goes there often and several important scenes take place there.
The school is also the site of a few important scenes. Frankie gets to sit next to her best friend Lindsey in Mrs. Miller’s homeroom and language arts class, so a lot of their interaction takes place there. The fact that it is their language arts class is important because both girls feel a deep connection towards books. The other important room in the school is the office, where Frankie has multiple interactions with Principal Berry and the counselor, Mr. Lukeman. Frankie doesn’t like the office very much. She thinks the secretary doesn’t like her and the chairs in the waiting room and the offices make Frankie uncomfortable. But at the end of the book the school becomes a place of comfort and something very important takes place there.
The clearing in the forest is by far the most important setting in the book. The clearing is peaceful and beautiful. Yet its inspiration came not from nature, but from a classroom. When I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory women’s studies class to fulfill a general education requirement, and my life was forever changed. In the acknowledgements of Somewhere Only We Know I thank the teacher of this course and every student in it for creating something very special and powerful. In that classroom we shared our stories. We overcame everything that kept us in silence, and were able to share stories of violence we had encountered. Even the teacher had a story to tell about violence in her life. And with that sharing came power. We found healing by sharing what happened to us. We put a name on it and learned that it wasn’t our fault. This is the kind of environment I tried to create in the clearing for Frankie and the other girls.
I tend to feel a greater connection to God in nature, like Frankie, which is why I chose to make this magical place a clearing in the forest. The song “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane also influenced the story and gave me my title, so that is why I chose the beautiful tree to be in the middle of it. I love that the clearing becomes a safe place for Frankie and the girls to try to share their stories, and I hope that victims of abuse reading my book are able to find a place like this of their own. Because of its power, the clearing acts as a character of its own in the story, and it draws all of the girls together.
When writing a story, setting can often seem like it’s just in the background since it is the background of the story. But when you consciously think about the setting of a story and what it can do for your story, you can make it have a significant impact.
As I said here, on my writer’s retreat I made a big breakthrough on the project I’m trying to get started on. The book is a dystopian set well into the future, and will feature a princess as one of the main characters. Because it is a princess, the setting that immediately came to mind was a fairy-tale like, medieval setting, with castles and horses and no electricity. And so I was trying to force this setting into the book, not realizing that this was what was keeping me stuck.
Looking back I can’t believe myself for trying to use this setting. It goes completely against one of my favorite things to do with my writing: mix the past and the present.
I believe my love of this comes from my first favorite book: Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In this novel, Jessie believes it is 1840, but in reality she is part of a historical preserve and it is really 1996 (the year the book was published). We get a really cool mix of American frontier life mixed with the modern world. I read this book so many times that my cover is creased and ripped in many places—and I was even able to meet Haddix and get it signed—that I think I’ve always had this concept in the back of my mind.
The first two manuscripts I wrote are both dystopias, and they both feature this mix of past and present, a world where there was some kind of fallout and technology never quite caught back up. The first has a princess in a ball gown in a room with a grand fireplace and an electric chandelier, but her city is surrounded by slums that don’t even have electricity or indoor plumbing. The second has contact lens cameras and microphones implanted in cheeks, but is set in an abandoned amusement park and has a boy who’d never even been on an elevator before. I’m just glad I finally realized I needed this mix of past and present in my new project.
The novel is still in a very early stage, and I don’t want to give away too much yet, but it will feature two storylines: one in a small village without electricity with a regular girl, and one in what used to be Cincinnati, with the palace being the tallest building with the crown on top. Placing the princess in what used to be a modern city is exactly what this book needs going forward, and I’m really excited to start working on it. My husband and I are even planning on going to spend a day in the city soon, so I can get a better feel for it.
Setting is so important in creating the tone of your story. Make sure you pick what is right for you and your story. And if you have a style you like, stick with it.
I really miss being in school sometimes, but there are so many books on writing out there, and reading each one feels like taking a class on the topic. I just got done reading Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St.John. This book holds so many good tips and ideas for writing, and I just wanted to share a few important things I learned from it.
Your goal as a writer is to make the reader care. That’s what it all comes down to, because if the reader doesn’t care, she’s not going to keep reading, and she’s definitely not going to pick up your next book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put down a book after a few chapters because even though I liked the story idea, I didn’t care what happened to the characters. The reader must be invested in the characters’ lives in order to keep reading.
You can make the reader care by using conflict, tension, and emotional responses. Throughout the whole book, St.John writes that your characters must have believable motivation in their backstories, because this leads to the conflicts that they face, the tension of each scene, and the emotional responses that the characters have. The reader will care if there is a lot of conflict and a questionable outcome, if the scenes are fast and exciting yet balanced by scenes of reflection, and if the characters have an emotional story.
Setting is so much more than where your story takes place. St.John explains how setting can make readers care by it helping to create the mood and tone of your story and by helping the reader stay grounded in the reality of the story. Having your characters react to the setting using their specific points of view also makes the reader care because it helps to characterize the people in the story.
This book is an excellent source for any writer, and it helped me learn how I can make readers care about my books.