The Importance of Setting

By Brian Francis

On November 1, as part of the IFOA Delegate programme, I attended a roundtable discussion about the importance of book setting. The panel featured writer David Bergen (Leaving Tomorrow), Richard Wagamese (Medicine Walk), Christos Tsiolkas (Barracuda) and was moderated by Lewis DeSoto (The Restoration Artist).

Richard Wagamese, David Bergen, Christos Tsiolkas and Louis DeSoto

Richard Wagamese, David Bergen, Christos Tsiolkas and Louis DeSoto ©ifoa.org/Ricky Yu

One mistake that aspiring authors sometimes make is not paying close enough attention to the setting of their stories. But an evocative setting is crucial to a story’s success. After all, if you can’t create a believable world that your characters inhabit, how will readers believe in those characters?

Setting can play such an important role in your story that it can even become, as Lewis DeSoto pointed out, an extension of a character. Setting can even be a character, providing the obstacle your characters need to overcome. Think blizzards, jungles and shopping malls during holiday season.

But setting is more than the physical location. As David Bergen pointed out, setting is also how people speak, how they talk, the cars they drive. Often, it’s not about the physical setting but its nuances that contribute to creating a believable backdrop for your readers.

When it comes to researching your setting, the panel agreed that while Google comes it handy, it doesn’t provide the sensory details you need in order to truly capture your setting. You, as the writer, need to experience your settingthe smells, the landscape, its inhabitantsif you want to create a believable place that will captivate the imaginations of your readers.

Brian Francis’ most recent novel, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo and Georgia Straight as a Best Book of 2011. His first novel, Fruit, was a 2009 Canada Reads finalist. Francis is also an IFOA Delegate.

Five Questions with… David Bergen

David Bergen, author of Leaving Tomorrow and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see David on November 2, as well as a copy of Leaving Tomorrow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In an interview with Mark Medley of the National Post, you said, “I always have a book that I use that somehow inspires my novels.” What book inspired Leaving Tomorrow?
Bergen, David

David Bergen: For this novel, there was no one specific book, though The Red and the Black and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were humming in the background. And Ecclesiastes. And Flaubert.

IFOA: Leaving Tomorrow focuses on young Arthur finding his place in his family and the world. How did you go about creating such a psychologically compelling character?

Bergen: I try to figure out what the character is pushing against. That is my starting point, and usually that leads to other discoveries. Nothing is obvious, and usually the little moments are the ones in which the character reveals himself.

IFOA: What was it like having one of your novels (The Age of Hope) selected to be part of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013?

Bergen: Strange. Canada Reads is geared towards discussions of “issues” or “relevance,” and certain novels are not inclined that way. That said, I was pleased to have attention paid to The Age of Hope. Good people at Canada Reads, and I got to meet Ron MacLean.Bergen, Leaving Tomorrow

IFOA: Do you have a writing regiment?

Bergen: When I am writing and lucky enough to be in the midst of a novel, I write five days a week, six hours a day, at my office in the Exchange in Winnipeg. I aim for five hundred words a day.

IFOA: What was the best piece of writing you read in the past year?

Bergen: Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman.

David Bergen is the award-winning author of eight novels, including The Time in Between, winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize. See David on November 2 as he reads from his latest, Leaving Tomorrow, an emotionally powerful story about a hopeful young man who yearns for a larger life outside of his small town in Alberta.