Posted in inspiration, Thoughts, writing inspiration

Using Sense and Setting

This was first posted on Pamlico Writers’ Group website, July 11, 2017,

The Pamlico Writers have been posting picture writing prompts. Many of these prompts are atmospheric. The setting or scenery is part of the prompt. In one picture we had a night time view of a house in the water, in the most recent a lonely road with storm clouds looming.

How important is weather and setting to your stories. How do you describe these conditions? When I think of a rain storm it is the smell of rain that comes to mind. The feel of electricity in the air that can make the hair on your arms stand up. The smell of ozone. Living on the water, there is also the changes in the weight of the air. When storms threaten, the air becomes heavy with humidity. The scent of the river and ocean become more apparent. The wind changes bringing a much needed coolness to the air or perhaps a chill. Choosing words to describe the weather, atmosphere and setting can set the tone for the scene, it can even set the tone for the book. What is it about our surroundings that can change a happy story to something foreboding?

In the book I am reading by Katharine Ashe, she uses a lot of weather. At the beginning of the story her heroine is caught in a hurricane on the island of Jamaica. She is new to the island and has no idea what is happening. Ms. Ashe weaves the character’s bravery and innocence along with her naiveté concerning the storm. She expertly shows the woman’s character with the clean up after the storm using sight, scent and emotion to heighten the tension in the story. Later, as she trudges through Scotland, we see a change in the weather and in the character. Like the cold, rugged terrain of Scotland the young woman grows older, colder and tougher. Ms. Ashe describes the weather and blends the two as if the setting is another character reflecting the changes in her heroine.

A member of the Pamlico Writers’ Group, Eileen Lettick has been sharing her story about a young girl who has been in an abusive situation. The character’s bedroom and the changes in décor also reflect the changes in her own situation. When her mother takes down the pretty flowery curtains in the living room and puts up the old, heavy drapes we get a sense of foreboding. The changes Ms. Lettick puts in her story are often subtle but the impact is powerful.

I use my hometown as the setting for my stories. I often reflect back to the things that have affected my mood or perception over the years. Here are some examples:

“The warm breeze swept my tears into the river. Their saltiness mingling with the brackish water. The earthy scent of mud and the promise of the ocean filled the air, comforting and frightening as the future that was still a mystery.”

“The dirt road was a ribbon of creamy satin in the darkness. The icy wind made my steps quicker, the effort lifting my spirits. I could smell the freshness in the air, a newness, a promise. The pearl-glow of the moon, a cameo set in silver against a velvet blue sky. The face in the moon brought comfort and lightness, everything would be okay. The child stirred within me, he too felt the promise in the winter night.”

“The smell of rain filled their senses. Their hair lifted in the quivering of wind and electricity. Glancing at the fields beside them, they saw the rain rushing towards them. Dancing across the parched field, drenching row after row as it moved closer to the road. They ran. The cool breeze filling their lungs as the first icy drops pelted their bare skin and sizzled on the pavement.”

I hope each of these scenes gives you a glimpse of my home and what I was feeling at the time. Our word choices, the images we wish to convey, the descriptions all are important parts of the setting and scene. Thinking of the setting as another character, realize its importance to the story. Study not only the landscape that makes of your setting but the feeling it evokes, the sights, the smells, the sounds. Use words that bring us to this place and help us feel we are there.

I could not tell my stories in another setting. In New York City I might walk along the streets alone and lonely but I am not truly alone. I maybe just another face lost in this ocean of people, but the sights, the smells, the emotions that happen in a large city would not be the same as walking along a dusty dirt road with nothing but trees and wildlife for company. How important is setting to your stories. How would a different setting effect what is happening? If I mention New Orleans and Katrina, you have an image in your head. But if I spoke of hurricane Katrina in another place, the story would be vastly different. As you write your stories, consider what makes it unique and paint us a word picture. Remember to use all of your senses to describe setting.

The taste of the jambalaya spicy on your tongue. The sound of the musician on the corner blowing an old jazz tune for the crowd of tourists. The smell of the Mississippi mingling with the sweat of too many people as the succulent scents of seafood frying in the Quarter calls us, reminding us of home.


I write suspense with a hot romance and a southern accent. I like strong characters with attitude and charm. Heroines who can rescue themselves and heroes who aren't afraid to love them.