Making Your Setting Sensual
BY JAYNE CASTEL
Creating a Sense of Place in Romance Writing
More than any genre (although perhaps fantasy comes a close second), romance writing requires a richly drawn, evocative setting. Romance is about activating the senses. Although the love-story is the primary focus of a romance, all the best stories have tantalising, sensual descriptions of the setting.
When we are falling in love, our senses are heightened – taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing – they are all sharper. Everything is brighter, bolder, and louder. Food tastes better, the weather and the temperature reflect our mood and feelings. A romance writers need to transmit this enhanced state, so that readers own senses are heightened. This story might not be about you, but the closer a writer comes making the reader feel as though they are falling in love, the stronger the story’s impact will be.
Of course, it is a lot easier to bring exotic locales and times to life. Many would agree that it is a simpler task to make France more romantic than Russia, or Medieval Britain more appealing than prehistoric Europe. However, Doctor Zhivago and Clan of the Cave Bearproved this is not always the case! In many ways, setting your story in a traditionally ‘romantic’ locale can also be a challenge. These settings have been used widely in romances and, if the writer fails to capture the sense of place honestly, the reader can end up feeling cheated by trite or clichéd description.
Any setting can be romanticised – simply by engaging the reader’s senses completely. So how does a writer do this without ending up with purple prose or overuse of adjectives? I have a couple of tips that work for me:
1. If your story has a contemporary setting – write about what you know! It may be tempting to set your romance amongst the jet-setters in St Tropez or the New York fashion scene – but unless you’ve actually lived in these places, or at least visited or experienced them, your reader won’t believe a word you say! I know three contemporary settings really well: Italy, New Zealand and the UK. I am equally happy setting a romance in Rome, London or Wellington – because I know these cities well. This also applies for jobs. I know the publishing, cuisine and educational fields really well, so if I were going to use a work environment as a major setting in a story, I would use one of these. I have worked in a lot of big offices, so I would be comfortable setting a romance against a backdrop of corporate power-play – however, I would struggle with a medical romance set in the ER! If your story has one scene in an environment you do not know well, this should not affect your story – but if it plays a huge part in the setting, be wary. In addition, if you do not know a setting well enough, make sure to research it thoroughly. This brings me to my second point.
2. If your story has an historical setting – do your research! You need to amass a file on the place and time you are writing about. Collect information on the food, customs, clothing, architecture (and building materials), manners, use of language, scenery and climate. Do not spend a year gathering material before you write (this is called procrastination!) but you should have a clear picture of your setting before you begin writing.
3. Show don’t tell. You have probably heard this piece of writing advice before – and yet it can be hard to follow. What it means is that, rather than making a statement about something – describe it. For example, instead of: “It was a hot and sunny day when Susan arrived in Rome”, forbid yourself from using the words ‘hot’ and ‘sunny’ and describe them through Susan’s senses so that you get something like: “The sky was a deep, unblemished blue and humid air feathered against Susan’s face when she stepped out onto the tarmac.”
Let us feel and experience the setting through your main character. In my novella, A Roman Summer, a create a strong sense of place by letting the reader see Rome through the eyes of Kay Starling, an uptight, unhappy young woman who arrives in Rome to rescue her sister from an ‘unsuitable match’. She did not come to Rome for tourism but the colours, the smells, the sounds, the food – and the men – assault her senses from the moment she arrives. To make your setting sensual, and create a real sense of place in your romance you have to put yourself in touch with your own senses first. I know Rome so well that I can close my eyes and recapture the sensations of living there. No matter where or when you set your story, you need to do the same.
Jayne Castel lived in Italy (Rome and Umbria) for ten years – which is why she loves using Italy as a setting for many of her stories! She has worked as a language and cooking teacher, administrator and web content writer, and currently lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Her latest work, Italian Romance is now available on Amazon Kindle.