Yes, a doughnut is a pillowy mix of flour, milk, and sugar. And, yes, that squishy concoction is tossed into a cauldron of bubbling fat. But, a glob of dough and hot oil does not a doughnut make.
After the first three books in my Love and Danger in St. Claire series released, for some reason—she said sarcastically—the readers I spoke to couldn’t wait to talk doughnuts. What I found was that the picks for their favorite doughnuts came with not just the type, but with a story. My readers didn’t say, ‘I like glazed or jelly ones or fritters.’ Instead, they told me stories like a perfectly glazed old-fashioned they discovered inadvertently when a packed breakfast restaurant led them to grab a bite at a hole-in-the-wall-shop full of quirky paintings they’d always overlooked but, on that day, was just what they needed. Taste is everything, but it’s not everything.
The setting of a novel is much the same way. It’s not a box that needs to be checked or a place on a map, it’s an experience. It conveys emotion just by existing. It’s a soliloquy for the reader without uttering a word of dialogue. Don’t choose it willy-nilly, build it piece by piece.
The write-what-you-know folks will ask, then should I only pick a real place I’ve been to? If you want to, sure! But don’t pick it because you know the street names or how far point A is from point B. Pick it because of your memories there and how they made you feel, good and bad. Weave them into the landscapes and skylines. Concentrate them into the cruel light of a florescent bulb in a small cold room where your characters find themselves in some trouble.
And if you want your setting to come from your imagination alone, then you should explore your mind even more. Don’t settle for kneecap deep. Jump in. Don’t only create from the oh-wouldn’t-that-be-lovely places. Face the rooms that make you squirm, the wooded paths that make you itch to walk down. For me and for St. Claire, Pennsylvania, I picked and grabbed from all of the above.
My husband is from rural Pennsylvania and I spent a lot of time there when we were teenagers. I may have lived just across the river in Ohio, but, in a lot of ways, his hometown was like a different world. It was my first time driving on roads so rough, bumpy, and narrow I wondered if they even met the criteria to deserve the word. My first time experiencing the true darkness of night as I drove home through thick woods and deep valleys, the only light coming from the high beams of my car piercing the haunting fog. Not to mention the first time I saw the tangible presence and effects of coal mining and gas drilling, businesses that support those communities but leave some wondering at what cost. I wanted to bring some of that mystery, history, and beauty to my fictional world, but I didn’t want to stop there either.
I wanted some homemade warm charm to be the cornerstone of my setting. A small town that made the locals want to stay with attractions that made outside comfort seekers want to visit. Tight knit but still accessible.
It was stops not just in Pennsylvania but also in Ohio that added the right ingredients to get the perfect treat. On one trip, my husband and I rented a cottage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that put me right where I needed to be to find the soul of quaintness and hospitality. With the gentle clops of horse and buggies drifting in through the open window of our bedroom in the mornings, how could I not write about people falling in love?
I was even more prepped to sow some seeds of romance by the pile of childhood memories I have of visiting Amish Country in Berlin, Ohio where I, along with my cousins, would load up on unique toys, giant lollipops, ice cream, and maple-frosted cinnamon buns. Without question, these places I’ve visited along with the thousands of small towns all over the world have no shortage of sweet, but there’s some suspect in there as well. Countless pros, but one big con.
Isolation. Seasons of it can be good for the soul, but it’s a dangerous way to live. And while I’ll always call a small town my home, they are not without secrets and scars. Toxicity is sure to worm its way into those generational friendships that can quickly turn into feuds. Suspicion and fear will always make good people do bad things and even those you’ve known your whole life can surprise you. And so yes, St. Claire is sweet and charming and picturesque, but it will never be boring.
What do you think? What ingredients make up your perfect small town? How do you craft a setting?
If you want to continue the conversation, leave me a comment. And while you’re here, be sure to stop on my CONTACT page and sign up to receive June’s newsletter here. In this issue, I’ll be talking classics, TBRs, what I’m reading, and you’ll even have a chance to win a $25 AMAZON GIFT CARD!