NaNoWriMo – Day 9: Setting the Scene

The setting has always been an integral part of my books, and over the years many reviewers have remarked upon the descriptions of the setting in my novels. When my debut novel The Lily Brand came out in 2005, Robyn Roberts from Once Upon a Romance remarked:

Ms. Schwab gave such detailed descriptions of the estates, gardens and people that I felt as if I knew them myself.

And when Castle of the Wolf was published in 2007, Sandra Marlow from the Historical Romance Club wrote in her review that

Ms. Schwab’s writing has a flow that pulls you into her stories so subtly that you forget you’re just reading a book instead of actually interacting with her characters. I finally have visited the Black Forest of Germany.

Truly, there is no greater compliment for a writer than “I was right there with the characters.” (Well, “I stayed up all night to read this book” isn’t too bad either! *g*) I’ve always had this particular knack for descriptions – indeed, even when everything else about my writing was pretty much crap, I could pull of descriptions of the setting.

But how do you do it without overwhelming your reader with pages after pages of endless descriptions?

I tend to think of describing the setting as layering the scene, and I was reminded of this when I was working on one particular scene of my NaNoWriMo project this week. So I thought I’d share my process with you. Here’s what I started out with. This is the beginning of the scene that introduces the hero:

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar and was immediately enveloped by the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street.

Well… Nice, but a bit bland, isn’t it? It doesn’t evoke any specific images, instead what you get is a rather blurred view of a busy street. However, for historical fiction, I think it’s very important to take your reader into the scene and let him catch glimpses of that faraway, long-ago world your characters inhabit. So, let’s add a few things, shall we?

I like working with visual cues – that makes it easier for me to get a feeling for the setting and to describe things – so I started by doing a Google search for images of nineteenth-century street life. I also searched for period maps.

Depending on your setting, you can really find the most amazing things online, ranging from drawings, cartoons, and photographs of street scenes to beautifully detailed maps and descriptions in old magazines. Now that we’ve collected all this info, let’s work on our sentence and let’s start with Temple Bar (the online search yielded that it once separated the Strand from Fleet Street and was used in the olden days to display the heads of executed traitors):

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar, which had once been crowned by the heads of executed traitors. The only sightless heads staring down from it now where the two Charleses on their pedestals high up above the bustling street. Arrogantly, their stony eyes watched watched the efforts of carts, carriages, and pedestrians to press through the gates.

Much better, isn’t it? Now you get a glimpse of that construction the hero is passing through, and you also have this nice contrast between the immobile statues of Temple Bar and the movements in the street. Fleet Street was one of the main thoroughfares through the City of London, and as such it was prone to traffic jams. In one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of London in the 1870s, you can see Ludgate Hill and rather horrid press of traffic:

In the middle of the foreground you can just about make out a horse-drawn omnibus, with passengers sitting on the roof, while in the background at the right a flock of sheep blocks the street.

A flock of sheep??? Now wouldn’t this be something! (If you’ve read any of my novels, you know that I’m often attracted to the weird and slightly ludicrous…. *g*) So, let’s give our readers some glimpses of what the “hustle and bustle” in the sentence from which we started out, actually refers to. And let’s add some noise to involve more senses:

A bleating flock of sheep blocked the path of an omnibus, and the driver swore a blue streak, waving his fist at the woolly [hooligans]. Passengers were hanging out of the windows, complaining about the delay, while behind the bus along line of carriages had become stuck. A hearse, going in the opposite direction to the Strand, tried to pass by and nearly ran down a boardman, sandwiched between advertisements of the latest fabric cleaner and hairwater.

Boardmen carrying advertisements were part of the fleet of poor people you could see milling about the streets of London. In 1870s photographer John Thomson ventured out to take pictures of these people, of the street sellers and beggars and chimney sweeps and shoe-blacks. Several of his photographs are featured in the book Dickens’s Victorian London and you can see examples of his work here. I’ve added the boardman advertising Renovo and the shoe-black to my scene as well as another kind of street seller featured in Henry Mayhew’s The London Poor. Oh, and I’ve also added smells (in the early Victorian Age, even several of the better areas in London had problems with their sewers):

The din reminded Alex of an Eastern bazaar, but as for the smell—

He wrinkled his nose.

It would appear that today Fleet Street was permeated by the poignant aroma of l’eau de sewer.

And that’s what an Englishman calls civilisation, he thought wryly. He stepped around a shoeblack, who huddled against a wall covered in advertising posters.

In the rise and flow of vehicles and pedestrians from all walks of life, nobody paid much attention to the tall, blond man, his face deeply tanned by Eastern suns. But then, how could they have known that here walked Alexander Crenshaw, a man whose adventures in America and in the Far East many a reader had followed avidly? Indeed, to his own surprise, Alex had found that in the seven years he had spent away from England, he had become something of a celebrity. Society hostesses vied for his attention, invited him to their balls and parties, and men were eager to talk to him, to invite him to their clubs.

A great bother, all of it, really, yet if it ultimately helped to bring in additional funds for Layard’s excavations, Alex would not complain. He owed the man a lot, and the least he could do was to properly prepare for Layard’s arrival in a few months’ time […].

Further down the street, across from St Dunstan’s, a muffin-man ran his bell vigorously and proclaimed his ware. As Alex walked past him, a whiff of warm muffins and crumpets rose from the street seller’s basket to tickle Alex’s nostrils.

See? Isn’t this so much better than “Alex entered the City through Temple Bar and was immediately enveloped in the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street”? While our starting sentence was rather bland and gave the reader only the vaguest impression of this Victorian scene, in the fleshed-out paragraphs the scene comes to life, and you allow your reader to experience the sights and sounds and smells of a Victorian street scene