Setting Mirrors Character Part 2

I’m picking up where I left off last post. I reviewed how the right setting helps the character reveal backstory and inner conflict in a natural way. Today I want to share a few examples of setting projecting mood.

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Secrets & Charades is my Historical Romance set in 1872. Dr. Evangeline Olson goes west as a mail order bride. A newly married couple who are strangers are going to be nervous and fearful until they get to know each other. Jake is a very practical man. Their first stop on their journey back to the ranch is at one of his line-cabins. It’s a soddie (a house constructed of dirt) that his men use if they are too far away from the ranch to make it home before dark. This is their non-honeymoon night based a a promise Jake made to Evangeline when they first met.

Evangeline scanned the dimly lit room. The lantern revealed bunk beds built right into the dirt wall, inhabited by insects. “That bed might move after all,” she muttered under her breath. “Would you prefer I cook?” She hoped her reluctance wasn’t obvious in her voice. “Show me what supplies you have.”

“I generally keep a few things on hand, but there’s other provisions in that box on the table. I’m gonna tend the horses. Watch the damper on the fireplace. It has a mind of its own.”

Evangeline’s hand trembled as she began the simple meal preparation. After placing two potatoes to bake in the hot ashes and securing a pan of beans on the fire, she set about cleaning the table with the underside of her dress. A spider met its demise as it crawled across the table.

“God,” she whispered. “I asked for a change. Help me make the best of it.”

As she reached into the box for the tin plates, she gave thanks for one blessing. “This is the least romantic place I could imagine. I hope Jake agrees.”

 

The dirt and dimness help emphasize her anxiety and her last line flows from her heart to her surroundings.

In this next example Jake takes her on a side trip on the last leg of the journey to the ranch. They visit the homestead he grew up in. This gives him an opportunity to tell her some unpleasant things about his past as they look at the run-down place.

 

Standing in the ruins of his past, Jake shared his history. “Ben taught my pa everythin’ he knew about ranchin’. They became good friends.”

“When did you move from here to your ranch?”

“After the war, I came home in pretty bad shape. The girl I’d hoped to marry had married my little brother, Robert.” Jake tried to sound matter-of-fact even though raw emotions lingered near the surface with his fatigue. “My pa died while I was off fightin’. I couldn’t bring myself to live in the same house with Robert and Nora, so I hired on as foreman for Ben.”

Evangeline nodded for him to go on.

“I was drinkin’ and carryin’ on, tryin’ to forget the war, not proud of my actions back then.” He removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “Ben took me under his wing and showed me the light. Helped me forgive myself and receive God’s forgiveness. Came to Jesus because of Ben. I owe him my life.”

As they wander through the abandoned house and barn, Evangeline suggested they fix the place up. Her attitude gives him hope that this marriage can work.

There are times in the close confines of the wagon they fuss with each other because of fear and fatigue. Readers learn bits about their personalities as the story continues.

 

As you build your story world, think about places certain things can be revealed.  Places that seem natural for inner reflection or verbal sparring. I just completed a novella set in a blizzard on a ranch in Kansas. My settings are limited through most of the story. There are many scenes in the cabin, some in the barn. But key scenes take place out in the snowy woods, and in town.

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Don’t just write a setting for setting sake. Your last vacation destination to Merrimac Caverns might not be the best setting. Unless, the fear and anxiety you experienced while the tour guide led you through the dark recesses fits your heroine’s escape plans. Then bring up all those observations and link them to your characters feelings.

A tour of downtown Aurora in New Duet was necessary for my readers to understand Isabella’s new life. Evangeline’s first visits to shops in Charleton, Texas in Secrets & Charades helps readers know her better as she met its inhabitants. And the store room on the snowbound ranch in my novella gives a feel for the past without lots of verbiage.

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What is your favorite scene from a novel that brought you closer to the characters?

 

 

 

 

 

Homestead Homes: Soddies to Cabins

In creating settings, a writer does a lot of research. Historicals require just enough information to help the reader see your story world but not too much to slow the story down. Housing from the era and geographical location can become the juxtaposition of a dramatic twist. While researching my novel I found the homes built on the prairie ingenious.

neat soddie

Well maintained soddie

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This soddie looks thrown together.

 

Soddies and Dugouts

Because in some areas wood was hard to come by, the first homes were often soddies made from handcrafted blocks of dirt. These blocks were cut and placed on a frame. Up until the 1880s, sod bricks were cut from thick grasses with a shovel. With the invention of the grasshopper, a special plow designed to cut through the thick sod, the task went faster. It was not uncommon before this invention to build on a hillside using the hill as the back wall.

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Soddie built into a hill.

 

If having shelter quicker was needed a dugout would serve. A hole dug in the side of a hill large enough to house the family could be constructed quickly. Either sod blocks or a wood frame covered the entrance.

 

Both of these were intended to be temporary shelters. Soddies and dug-outs housed insects, snakes and other underground varmints in the walls. Lining the walls with wood or plaster helped create a barrier between crawly creatures and human inhabitants. A large rain could flood a dug-out or destroy a poorly constructed soddie. Once a proper cabin was built the soddie or dug-out were often repurposed as a storage area, a barn or quarters for either a newlywed eldest son and his wife or aging parents. Some soddies were so well-constructed they lasted for decades.

 

dugout home

Dugout with a roof.

 

Shanties and Cabins

Another throw together dwelling for new homesteaders might be a shanty. The walls were of thin wood covered in tar paper. The siding might be added after the first cash crop. They were drafty and did little to keep winter cold out. The floors were dirt and often windows were made of butcher paper rather than glass. Butcher paper (used to wrap fresh meat.) would be rubbed with lard and affixed to a window opening. You couldn’t see through it but some light came in through the greasy film.

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Small cabin

 

A real cabin might only be one room wooden structure with a sleeping loft. Much warmer than a shanty and far cleaner than either a soddie or dug-out. Windows might still be butcher paper unless the owner could afford glass. Often windows were made of many panes rather than one large sheet of glass. The small squares were more economical in case the window was damaged only the smaller broken portions need be replaced.

 

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Adobe structure

 

Adobes

In desert areas or flat plains homes were made of adobe. A special mixture of mud, the base being clay and sand and sometimes dung. Straw was added. One account I read mentioned horsehair. The mixture is poured into frames to create bricks. They were sundried. Adobe bricks have been used all over the world for thousands of years. And are still used as an economical way to construct a home in some areas of the world. They are sturdy and keep the homes relatively cool in summer and warm in winter.

Whatever kind of home a pioneer built the interior walls were whitewashed as soon as possible. This gave a cleaner appearance and reflected light.

Setting creates mood

The Double M ranch in Secrets and Charades is made from adobe bricks. Jake has a soddie on his ranch. It is used by his ranch hands if they are too far afield to make it back to the bunkhouse before dark. And his family’s original homestead is a cabin. Each of these locations is a crucial setting in the story.

Even after all the research on their construction, I chose not to put that information in my novel. Too much description draws the reader out of the action. Evangeline’s observations of her new surroundings set the mood. Each structure plays a key in building the emotional tension between characters. Had I taken the time for Jake to explain how each structure was built you would be bored. Now, if they were building one of these structures together, the process becomes part of the emotional struggle the characters experience.

What have you researched for your WIP to help create your story world? How much of that information do you feel really is necessary to use? Please share in the comments.

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