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.

Lewis DeSoto on Emily Carr

Lewis DeSoto is both a writer and artist whose paintings have been exhibited across Canada. A former editor of the Literary Review of Canada, DeSoto has published essays and short stories in numerous journals, and his novel A Blade of Grass was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. In this clip, DeSoto talks about his […]

Five Questions with… Lewis DeSoto

DeSoto, LewisLewis DeSoto, longtime friend of Authors at Harbourfront Centre and author of The Restoration Artist, answered our five questions.

IFOA: The Restoration Artist is set on La Mouche, a tiny island off the coast of Normandy. How did you first encounter this place?

DeSoto: Islands are like books—they are enclosed, mysterious, alluring, and separated from the mainstream of life. As my character, Leo did, while standing on the coastline in Normandy, I saw on the horizon a smudge of land, and I immediately felt the pull, as if it was a place I already knew. Later, when I stepped ashore, I knew that I would either live on the island, or set a book there.

IFOA: Your protagonist is a young painter. Tell us about one thing painting and writing have in common.

DeSoto: The aim of all art is to create, or reveal, truth and beauty. To love the beautiful is to desire the good. Both the painter and the musician in the book struggle to believe this notion, and live by it.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would you choose?

DeSoto: Ah, so many, so many. But as one writer to another, I think I would most enjoy a lunch with Iris Murdoch. Although a single lunch might not be long enough. She is the writer whose collective works I most admire, even though there are single books by other writers that I might value higher. Her plots, her language, her insight, her humor, and her passion, continue to inspire me.

IFOA: When and where do you prefer to read?

DeSoto: A window seat on a rainy summer day in the country. Some of my sweetest childhood memories take place in that magical moody world.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

DeSoto: …tell the truth, when I celebrate beauty, when I believe that art can make a difference in the world.

DeSoto will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 6.