Setting Mid Tone

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SETTING MID TONE: Or How to Draw a Reader into the Heart of Your Story
by Barbara Clark

Every story, no matter which genre, needs a physical background to bring the events alive in the reader’s imagination. Whether it’s in a city, the country, the beach, desert, or mountains, or another world, the setting can help the reader experience the terror and excitement, the sorrow and joy, the triumphs of the hero and heroine.

With the careful selection of details, you can draw on the reader’s own background of experiences to bring the story to life.


TONE (MOOD): There are times when the author personifies the elements to create an even stronger mood. You can see this in the opening paragraphs of A Breath of Heather, a paranormal romantic suspense:

Something’s wrong.
With a growing sense of urgency, Heather Carter searched for the source of trouble among the hundred-and-fifty first and second grade students playing in the warm California sunlight. Everywhere she looked, she saw only normal activity--the joy and restless energy children.
And yet, to her inborn special perceptions, the earth vibrated with a sense of menace The slight breeze hushed as if holding its breath. In the park beyond the chain link fencing, a flock of crows suddenly took flight, voicing their warning calls as they soared above the eucalyptus and pepper trees.

Within the framework of a setting, these few sentences accomplish several things:

Generate a sense or feeling (Tone) of foreboding
Establish the location, general time of day, and the weather
Introduce the protagonist, show her sense of responsibility, her profession, and hint at her psychic ability.

Personify the earth and the wind

Use physical details to bring the scene alive

I have to confess, I didn’t consider many of these elements at the time. Most authors do these thing instinctively. I pictured the scene in my mind, using as a model, the school where I taught for several years, and the times I was on duty to supervise recess. The crows and trees were part of that image. The rest involved choosing words to convey the picture and Heather’s emotions.


When you show the setting through the POV (Point of View) of a character, use details specific to that character’s personality, background, and line of work. Here’s an example from Tears of the Hawk. The heroine, Charity, is an astrophysicist. Her frame of reference would have to do with stars and the solar winds. In this nighttime scene, she’s in a car with other people going to a country club set in the Anaheim, California hills.

One more curve and the whole right side beyond the road opened to a stunning vista. "The view is wonderful. It’s how I imagine the night sky looks in the heart of our galaxy." She stared out the window at the huge basin of North Orange County spread below, filled with grids and clusters of jeweled lights. Emotion, a deep feeling of awe, clogged her throat.

You can see I chose words to set the time of day, give a sense of setting and the movement of the car, and added Charity’s emotions.

I haven’t said much about using all the senses to draw the reader deeper into the story. Here’s an example of a setting that’s part of the psychic heroine’s vision. It’s also a portion of a key scene that ties three books together, is a major turning point in this book, and employs sight, sound, smell, and touch.

Unlocking her internal barriers, she waited.
A moment of dizziness. Then, for the first time in ten years, she deliberately plunged into past events, diving deeper, deeper than she’d ever dared...
The door of awareness opened. She found herself in a wet, tangled jungle where it pressed against a walled fortress. Around her rose the cries of nocturnal creatures and the low hum of insects. It was night. Dim illumination from a quarter moon filtered through the high canopy of trees. The pale light glowed across a small grate-covered opening in the rock wall. She smelled the dank, putrid stench of decaying plants mingled with raw sewage, and the heavy musk of a man’s sweat. Hawk. She was inside his thoughts, a living part of him.
She felt another man with them—Quinn.
Death vibrated in the air. Behind the rough-cut stone wall, agony and choked screams spoke of torture, suffering. Charity cringed. How could she go any closer? Be swallowed up in those soul-searing emotions? A more rational part of her mind urged her to pull out of the relentless vision, but she was trapped, held fast by Hawk’s mental strength. Reliving everything he saw, heard, touched, smelled, and experienced.



Many publishers have preferred eras or locations in which to set the books in their line. E-Publishers and most publishers who do mainstream books give the author wider latitude in choosing a setting.

RESEARCH FOR SPECIFIC DETAILS Or...The Reality of the Setting is in the Details

To give your setting life, it’s important to use specifics. Instead of birds, say crows or sparrows, or any bird that would be found in that area. Not sure which are native to the region? Check it out in a bird guide, or magazine, or on the internet.
Even your choice of a crow or sparrow can affect the tone of the setting. In the first scene I used, a flock of sparrows or hummingbirds twittering their warning calls wouldn’t have had the same impact of danger as, "... a flock of crows suddenly took flight, voicing their warning calls."
Details bring richness to your setting. They also tap into the reader’s own memories and draw her more deeply into the story. Most people have seen and heard crows. So they’d know the sight and sound experienced by Heather in those moments.
Be sure your information is accurate. If you place a plant, animal, or even a geologic formation in an area where they don’t exist, some reader will know it, and you will have lost credibility with that person.

SOURCES OF INFORMATION are available in libraries, at bookstores, over the internet, and from your own observations.


Once you decide to set a story in a place you’ve never seen, it’s time to do more research. One problem is, the information you collect is so interesting, it’s easy to get caught up in research for the sheer joy of learning. In the end, you’ll use only a small part of what you’ve collected, but it will give you a good "feel" for the setting of your scenes.

Here’s a partial list of what I use:

A collage of pictures, reminding me of scenes in the story, all pasted on a large sheet of poster-size paper. They come from magazines, catalogs, photographs, and postcards.
Travel guides: From the library or bookstores
Field guides such as the ones from the National Audubon Society
Large "coffee table" type books. The photos give you something visual to describe Magazines, especially National Geographic
Internet sites


Okay, you’ve chosen to set your story in a place you’ve never seen. Now with your plot, your characters, your new information and your rich imagination, you’re once again ready to bring life and emotion to a new setting.
As you write the details of what happens within the framework of the scene, remember to break up any long narrative passages with dialogue, action, and words that evoke images in the reader’s mind. Here’s the last scene in this article, this time from Deserts of the Heart. The setting is at the edge of the great Sahara Desert in a Bedouin camp beside an oasis. It’s nighttime, and they’re celebrating. This is from the heroine, Faith’s, POV....

Leaning back against Kadar with his arms around her, she stared into the leaping flames of the bonfire. The storyteller’s voice had a soothing quality. The desert wind had changed into a light breeze, and she was warm and safe in the circle of Kadar’s embrace.
The storyteller gave three sharp claps to indicate he was done for the night. With that the mood around the fire changed.The tribal musicians took their places to one side of the clearing. One began a rhythmic beat with his fingers on a long, narrow drum held under one arm. A second musician added the long, slumberous sound of a Berber oboe.
Giggling, the young, unmarried women went to the stack of lanterns collected before the feast and placed them around the edge of the clearing, lighting them as they went. With shy looks at the unmarried young men, they sashayed back to their places and settled gracefully on the rugs with their families.There was a moment of silence. No one moved. Even the children were quiet.Then, with a shout, the sheik’s oldest son leaped into the center of the cleared space and called a challenge to all the wamors. Around the circle, the men, young and old, jumped to their feet, roaring, "Yallah."
From behind her, Kadar surged to his feet, adding his shout. With one vault, he joined the sheik’s son in the center. The two faced off as if in battle, and suddenly each man’s long, curved ceremonial dagger glittered in the firelight. They moved slowly around the other, their graceful masculine forms a contrast of light and dark. The sheik’s son in white loose shirt and trousers, Kadar in black--a dark warrior.

The son slashed out with a quick, glittering move, but Kadar leaped away at the last fraction of a second, then pressed in for attack. Dust rose under their soft desert boots. Men called encouragement from the sidelines. Music rose above the shouts and the high wailing, excited cries of the women. Once more the son and Kadar each drove in then spun away, sharp knives barely missing their opponent. Faith’s heart was in her mouth. She knew it was a ritual combat, but at the moment it was too real. The music changed in tempo as the two warriors faced each other.
Kadar began a long, slow glide, his dagger weaving intricate patterns that seemed to mesmerize the son. At the last moment, the young man swung his dagger up and their blades clashed high in the air, where ribbons of firelight rolled down the blades.
Both men strained against the other, neither moving. Kadar’s profile, lit by the ring of lanterns, spoke of power and ageless strength. The younger man looked grim and determined, but there was a hint of desperate courage in the set of his mouth. With shocking suddenness, Kadar stepped back, bowed to the younger man, and extended his dagger, hilt first, in surrender.

Did the scene move along at a brisk pace? Do you want to read more and find out what happens next? Were you there, in that Bedouin camp, watching the ceremonial duel?

I hope so, because that means I’ve met my goal of drawing you, the reader, into the heart of the story.