Rediscovering Setting

- by Sharon Ashwood

They say a good setting is a character in itself, no matter which genre one is reading. I think this is particularly true for fantasy or supernatural tales. The more concrete and distinct an author makes their fantastic world, the more believable it is for the reader.

A telling example is the translation of The Lord of the Rings from page to film. Tolkien left such a complete picture of his world that not only could artists turn words into images, but readers like myself who hadn’t opened those books for years recognized it at once. Middle Earth was as important a player as any member of the Fellowship.

When I came to write the Dark Forgotten series, I had setting firmly in mind. The stories are paranormal romances with an urban fantasy flavor, so much of the action takes place in Fairview, a modern college town. However, in the course of events my characters discover of an alternate dimension called the Castle, a dungeon-like prison for supernatural creatures. This is where much of the action in Scorched occurs, and where the reader connects with the mysterious and horrific history of my world.

The Castle has no exterior, just an endless maze of torchlit stone corridors. There are caverns and quarries, empty halls and cramped cells. There is dust, darkness, and cold. It’s like Escher meets a B horror classic, communicating the despair, confusion and alienation of its residents. All the supernatural species—gargoyles, trolls, demons, sorcerers, dragons and many, many others were imprisoned there millennia ago, and in the course of the first book, Ravenous, my characters find the doorway. Of course, this presents a problem. Do they dare let any of the inmates out? The Castle’s creatures range from good to unspeakably evil. But which are which and who decides? Scorched has action, hot romance, and a lot of humour, but it has a darker side. The setting of the prison carries much of that—if my hero and heroine fail, the consequences surround them.

I’ve never written a setting that has “worked” as hard as this, and I found the experience very enlightening. Rather than offer a quick sketch of the setting and move on to the action of a story—advice frequently given to authors of commercial fiction–it’s possible to make the setting supply much of the psychological tone of a piece. It’s something I’ve always intellectually known, but never pursued the technique this far. It’s been a great experience and a lesson I’ll carry forward into future books.

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