For me, establishing a setting for a story is as much about drawing the reader in as it is about building a picture of a specific time and geographic location. When I describe a setting well, I’m hoping to give my hypothetical reader a photo, or perhaps even a video of where I want them to go, what I want them to see.
That description is a multi-layered task, one that doesn’t stop at just one sense or one dimension. I want my readers to hear, smell, even touch what my characters are experiencing. Not that I want to overwhelm them with insignificant details, of course, but rather I want to fire their imaginations. I want them to want to be in that place and experience it for themselves.
I write my drafts much the same way I used to paint. First, I create an initial sketch, the bare bones of a city, a room, a specific place. In the story I’m excerpting below, that sketch begins with a hotel balcony overlooking a river. Not just any river, mind you, but the Arno flowing through the heart of Florence. My character sees the old merchant palaces glowing golden in the sun on the other bank. She thinks about going outside with her lover to explore the city below. They pause to flirt.
Then they do go out to see to see the wonders of Renaissance Italy. Michelangelo’s David is on their list as is the Uffizi Gallery. There they fall madly in lust with Titian’s painting “Venere da Urbino” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Urbino). The art becomes as much a part of my story’s setting as the architecture. I add more detail in the second draft and then there are street performers and the swirling noises of thousands of tourists. The air is hot and sticky and the atmosphere is charged. My characters are aroused, not only by each other, but by their surroundings as well.
Third draft and I’ve got almost all the colors filled in. The medieval architecture of the city takes hold of my characters, enhancing their flirtation.
From “A Room with a View” (Night’s Kiss): The crowds part and I remove my hand, using it instead to steer you away across the uneven cobbles. I wonder if I could pull you down a deserted sidestreet, press you up against a wall like a medieval lord with his mistress. I imagine pulling up your heavy skirts and sinking into your wet, welcoming warmth. My pants are hot and moist at the thought of thrusting my way inside you, your carmined lips parting in a torrent of Italian that begs me not to stop.
Looking at the ancient stones, I choose not to remember the religious wars that made these very same streets run with blood. Or Savoranola, the mad monk with his bonfires of the vanities that consumed so many books, so much art. No, instead I dream tourist dreams of beauty and sophistication, poetry and love and forget the ugliness of the past. And for now, since the crowds are unrelenting and there are no deserted streets, my medieval lord is a story for another time.
There is always the temptation to get lost in my own mental landscapes, to outline and paint every object, every tree. But the action has to move on through the setting, not pause to admire itself in the mirror. If I’ve done my job well, that’s the best possible outcome.