Setting the Mood

muhldorf castle So, what about a setting makes it feel romantic? We tend to complain about settings being too wallpapery (the 21st Century Regency) or too cliched (every small town in possession of a fetching heroine must be in want of a sheriff’s attentions to her), but what makes settings great?

Wallpaper may induce eyerolls when done badly, but infodumps on the other extreme don’t create that evocative world either. Authors who research their worlds well definitely bring them to life, and many of my favorite books feature settings which are so real that they almost feel like another character in the book rather than an encyclopedia entry. Roberta Gellis excels at this, as do Elizabeth Chadwick and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Every detail may not be 100% historically accurate – and I can think of a few things I don’t necessarily need to see accurately depicted, but there are details and they do at least seem plausible.

In addition, in books like these, where the action feels rooted in a specific time and place, the relationship between leads has an added dimension. As I read, I discover this coming about because the interactions between the leads gets enhanced by the interplay between the characters and their setting. There are some wallpapery books I like, but since it’s hard for characters to be shaped by wallpaper, there is often a dimension missing for me there.

In other books I’ve read, the setting chosen and the author’s writing style match so well that the mood is memorable. Victoria Holt’s dark-tinged gothic romances paired with exotic or remote settings felt electric to me when I read them in high school. The brooding remote parts of the British countryside sparked with menace when described with just the perfect hint of something otherworldly in these books. At her best, Holt chose just the right words to draw the picture and set the mood. It’s not hard for that spark and that heightened emotional sense to turn to romance. I found it addictive.

And there are certain settings that just seem to lend themselves well to romance. Tons of contemporaries are set in small towns, and in the good ones, the town really does have a personality of its own. Robyn Carr‘s Virgin River feels that way to me, as does Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Millers Kill. In the best of these books, I enjoy getting to know the town as I get attached to the main characters and their story. Given the popularity of small town settings, this formula must work for many people. Personally, I also find the energy of a big city to be the sort of thing that could flame into a fantastic romance, but those settings still seem to be dominated by chick lit and urban fantasy.

And then there are the historical settings. Regency England very obviously works for a lot of folks. For me, I love to see settings all over many different times and places because while comfort books are good, I also like to explore the world in my reading. Faraway places just feel very romantic to me. Of course, I gloss over the rougher parts of life in the past as I daydream about castles, rolling hills, sweeping vistas and the like.

The time period from the 15th-18th centuries fascinates me. So many religious upheavals, changes to political systems and developments in education and the arts are crammed into those centuries! It’s a very rich mine for the imagination. The interplay between the older, medieval world and the development of systems and ideas more recognizable to today’s readers makes for an intriguing world – and lots of potential conflict.

There are certainly some settings that don’t immediately lend themselves to romance. After all, I think there’s a reason publishers don’t churn out more Spanish Inquisition books than you can shake a stick at. What settings work for you? And how does the interplay between setting and characters strike you when you’re reading?

-Lynn Spencer

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6 Responses to “Setting the Mood”

  1. Abi says:

    Hey Lynn,

    I really gloss over settings in my reading. Though I love Elizabeth Chadwick, sometimes it gets a bit too much, all of that detail!

    I know you’re speaking of setting on a larger scale as to the effect it has on a reading experience but when I ‘see’ book scenes in my mind, they’re always my own construct to the point where I could be imagining two characters standing in a field somewhere and then I read ‘Jim took his snifter off the headboard’ and realise they’re in a room! I then flip back a few pages and remember, oh yeah, look at the line where it says “they retired to the study”.

    But my eyes pretty much gloss over those things. I know ‘talking heads’ are supposed to be bad, but that’s pretty much how I ‘take in’ books. It’s one reason why light historicals are my friends and heavy, rolling gothics are mine enemies. It’s harder to gloss over descriptions when they’re taking up two or three pages at a time.

  2. Diana says:

    I think you’re right about small towns sometimes becoming a character in the story. I thought this was especially true of Nora Roberts’ Three Sisters Island trilogy. I felt like I lived there while reading that series.

  3. MB says:

    I’ve been reading the two Elizabethan series by Patricia Finney/P.F. Chisholm and definitely had to blink to wake myself up to the modern world when I finished. They are wonderful books!

    Arianna Franklin’s series does this to me as well. And Diana Gabaldon’s. Georgette Heyer. Jo Beverley. Sheila Simonson’s regencies. All of those make me feel like I’m ‘there’.

  4. I love atmosphere in books — Mary Stewart is really good at it, for instance. And in movies, Ridley Scott is superb at building atmosphere. But atmosphere often tends to suffer in romance novels and I’ve never understood why. I strive to maintain atmosphere in my own novels, and my reviews often reflect that.

    I think the reason is that romance authors are working so hard to keep the balance between telling a good story and the romantic conflict — and especially in historical romances, you’ve got a lot going on: historical scene setting, some sort of story plot, romantic conflict…plus all publishers have word count limits that you have to abide by. On top of that, these days the pace of story telling is so fast, you just can’t take time out to leisure paint scene pictures the way they used to. Atmosphere gets injected in pixels…if at all, and I suspect that’s why some romances feel like talking heads. The romance *must* come first.

  5. Caryl says:

    Lynn–I picked up Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Ferguson series on your rec. It was magnificent and you’re absolutely right, the atmosphere was wonderfully drawn. I could smell the leaf mold in the fall and the hot asphalt in the summer. The romantic element is poignant and the pay off (after 5 books) thrilling. Good reads!

  6. Katie Mack says:

    I love it when the atmosphere feels so real that it’s like you’re there. I agree that Carr’s Virgin River and Spencer-Fleming’s Millers Kill both feel almost like secondary characters — to the point that even when I’m not reading them I can picture the places and residents in my mind.

    I can enjoy the small town setting when there’s great atmosphere, like with Carr and Spencer-Fleming, otherwise I’d rather the book have an urban setting. New York City is probably my favorite setting, and I think the city lends itself well to all kinds of stories.

    Another favorite setting of mine that isn’t about geography, but all about atmosphere, is the restaurant. I love romances in this setting — books such as “Guilty Pleasures” by Cathy Yardley, “Can’t Stand the Heat” by Louisa Edwards, and “Delicious” by Susan Mallery. I don’t know that I can quite explain what it is that appeals to me. Maybe it’s the (controlled) chaos, the food, the competition, the (usually) quirky characters. Somehow, it all just works for me.