Thursday, September 2, 2010

More writing advice: Lisa Lenard-Cook on setting

Rounding out a week of contributors to "The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing," welcome Lisa Lenard-Cook, PEN-short-listed literary author whose writing book, "The Mind of Your Story," gets beyond the craft of plotting to the art of writing a compelling story. Her essay in the collection is "Why Setting Matters."

HALLIE: Lisa, it's become a bit of a cliche to say, "Setting is like another character..." and I notice that it's the one thing you don't say. I was particularly intrigued by what you said about setting as viewpoint (seeing it "through one intense point of view.") Can you tell us more about what you meant by that?

LISA: When I teach point of view, I like to begin with the room we're sitting in. Sure, we're all here, in this same place at this same moment. But while I can see all my students (if we're at a table, some in left profile, some in right), I can't see behind me, nor can I see myself. That's key: None of us can see ourselves, unless we use the old mirror or store window trick.

But let's take point of view one step further, and consider how each of us sees what we see. Everything is weighted by what we already know--I see the narrow lane that's my village's main road far differently than someone who's seeing it for the first time.

Now imagine using this for a character. Where I see, Oh crap! Not another tractor! you see, How quaint! A tractor on a state highway! And, just like that, each of those pov's has drawn a distinct picture in the reader's head.

Because that's the other thing: Your reader will never see what you do. It's her imagination. But that's good. If she's creating pictures in her mind from your details, you've succeeded.

HALLIE: How does setting function in your novel "Dissonance"?

LISA: Unlike many of my other fictions, two of the seeds for "Dissonance" were places: Los Alamos, New Mexico, & the WWII concentration camp Terezin. Terezin came first, and even though I've never been there, I kept wondering (no; make that obsessing) about what it might have been like for those interned there. I certainly never intended to write a novel about the Holocaust (& Dissonance isn't about the Holocaust; it's about love, & the healing power of forgiveness), but when the Prague narrator began to dictate her story, the setting unfolded as if I were seeing it through her eyes. Which I was, I suppose.

Los Alamos, which is about 50 miles north of where I sit at this moment, generated still more obsessing on my part. First of all, it's gorgeous up there--red & grey rock canyons, high mountain pine forest, views that stretch halfway across New Mexico when you step out of the trees. But it's also the place where the first atomic bomb was developed. How did the people who were part of that process that feel? And, still more important to Dissonance's Los Alamos narrator, how do their children feel about it? So again, the setting & point of view were tied together.

The third seed, by the way, was music theory. Go figure. Fiction works in mysterious ways.

HALLIE: What opportunities do you see most new authors miss when they write setting?

LISA: Humans are so visual, we can get carried away with what we see of a place. But setting is so much more than seeing. It's a mood, a time, a song in another room. I always encourage students to create settings that use all five--make that six--senses, & in particular the limbic senses (smell & taste), which take us back to the first time we smelled or tasted a thing as if no time has elapsed. For writers, that's pure gold.

HALLIE: For us on Jungle Red, "setting as mystery" had a particular resonance--using setting to trigger questions in the reader's mind. Any tips on how to do that?

LISA: This ties in with why I write fiction in the first place: to imagine the things I don't know. I was one of those precocious (or obnoxious, depending on your point of view) children who was forever asking why, &, in a way, I still am. What drew my ancestors to Buffalo NY (where I grew up)? Why are the curtains drawn at this house? Why does the highway end here, instead of here? Each of those questions sets up a mystery. Think about what your narrator doesn't yet know about a place, and you're off.

HALLIE: Are you working on a novel, as we speak, and is there anything you can share with us about the setting?

LISA: I am. Because my husband is a construction project manager (building big stuff, like hydroelectric projects & aqueducts) we've lived all over the western U.S. One of those places was the Antelope Valley, the northernmost part of LA County that no one ever sees. I worked, when we lived there, for a flight test outfit in Mojave, a sad desert town that exists only because two highways met there. Now there's a bypass, & the town is sadder still. But my novel takes place 20+ years ago, not long after the Mojave Airport manager realized there was money to made mothballing old passenger jets. There are hundreds of them now. They look like some trick of light, a desert mirage. But no: They're 707s, 727s, L-1011s, all lined up like the Rockettes. I just couldn't get them out of my head...

HALLIE: Rockettes -- I love that image!!

Thanks so much for visiting Jungle Red! Lisa will be checking in today so please, post comments and questions. (She can also be found at

And check in tomorrow when Jane Friedman, until recently the publisher for Writers Digest Books, gives us her take on how the role of agent is evolving.


  1. Hey Lisa! I'm still thinking about Jim's suggestion yesterday to use Google images for I'm putting those characters their settings,as you suggest--and suddenly..oh. I see. I see what they see, and why. They're real.

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Lisa, so nice to have you here! I love your description of setting and point of view. I suspect it could be very useful in revising--really trying to get into the mind of the character on the page and then seeing what she sees through the lens of her history.

    And thanks for reminding us to always ask "why?"

  3. Welcome, Lisa. So much good stuff on settings. I think a mistake that beginners make is to hurl a lot of facts and details at the reader to make her believe that she is in a place. When it is that one telling sight/sound/smell that will transport her there.

  4. Hi Lisa,
    Loved your discussion of setting and POV. Which I always think of as attitude.

    And I'm fascinated by your being able to write about a prison camp without going there. The book sounds intriguing.

  5. Thanks for having me, ladies. And yes, Rhys, the best thing a writer can do is offer the perfect detail that will blossom in the reader's imagination, rather than so many the reader's overloaded.

  6. Hey Lisa,
    I am a writer by profession and I must say that all the advices you have shared here is a big help for me in writing a good content. I really love all the description you have shared here. Thanks,
    Keep up the good work n best of luck.

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