Alexis Radcliff is an author, gamer, unashamed geek, and history junkie who spent the better part of a decade working in tech before dedicating herself to her first love, literature.
Her new novel, A Vanishing Glow, is the first book in the Mystech Arcanum series, a deep and thrilling blend of steampunk and flintlock fantasy with mature themes.
Buy it now on Amazon.com, and read it when it releases on October 1st!
How to Dazzle Your Readers with Vibrant Settings
by Alexis Radcliff
It’s easier than you might think to weave a vibrant setting in the minds of your readers.
Imagine, if you will, a house on a hill on a cloudless night. Ancient paint peels off in long strips from the rotting boards of the walls, and the wind whistles through broken attic windows. Inside, a musty smell permeates hallways long since abandoned.
Can you see the house yet? Do you know what color the wood is, and whether the staircase leading up to the attic is worn or well-kept? Do the doors have brass hinges or iron? I didn’t give you any of those details, but I’d bet money you can answer each of the questions I’ve asked. Magical, huh?
Today I’m going to give you a few easy tips to help you bring your own settings to life.
The trick to conjuring vibrant settings is in tapping the mental structures which already exist in the minds of your readers, and then adding a few artistic flourishes that make it your own. You don’t need to describe an entire house to them — they already have an idea of what a house is. Your job is just to tell them it’s a house, and then to share the important bits about what makes this one special.
Rely on Non-Visual Sensations
Reading is uniquely magical in that when you engage someone’s imagination, you’re basically triggering intense hallucinations in all five of their senses. It can be easy to be overly reliant on visuals when you’re writing, because it’s so easy to say what’s there as a writer, but that only hits one of the five. For example: “A vase of roses sat on the table in the drawing room.” So it did. You might have an idea of what the drawing room looks like, but it’s not vibrant or detailed yet.
To make the scene sing, you need to stretch a little and engage your reader in some non-visual sensations. What’s the texture of the objects in the room? What does it smell like? What noises are there? If I tell you that the vase sits on a rough lace doily next to a tray of cookies wafting up the mouthwatering scents of oatmeal and cinnamon as my grandmother’s soft humming floats out of the adjoining kitchen, it really brings the scene to life, doesn’t it? You don’t have to hit all of the senses all the time (and in fact you shouldn’t), but pick at least 2-3 senses to trigger for any given scene if you want it to pop in the heads of your readers.
Less is More: Use a Few Objects as Anchors
This brings me to my second point: The best way to paint a vivid picture is to describe a few objects in detail, and let the reader infer the rest. It wouldn’t have helped to also tell you the number of couches in the room and the fabric on each, what the curtains were made of and how many pictures were on each of the walls, would it? You don’t care unless it’s important to the plot. Those are details you don’t need.
In the last scene, I picked four objects as anchor points: the vase, the doily, the cookies, and the humming. My choices were arbitrary: what matters is that each one is a good symbol for the overall feel of the room I’m trying to communicate and engages a unique sense for the reader. Usually one anchor point per sense is enough to set the scene — you can do more, but it quickly gets you into the realm of over-description.
By focusing on describing your anchor points well, your reader will fill in the other details on their own and assume a similar level of detail, quality, and character. If you spend an entire paragraph describing an intricately-painted porcelain statue of a ballerina on a nightstand, I’m going to assume the owner has really nice curtains too. As a writer, you want to engage and exploit those assumptions as often as possible.
Characterization is Key
You should think of your setting as any other character in your novel. Just like human (or animal) characters, your setting will have a unique feel and personality. You need to decide what you want that to be when choosing your anchor points, because otherwise it will be jarring for the reader in the same way that it feels off when a beloved character does something you don’t think they should do.
If we take the cookies and grandma’s humming from my last scene and stick them in the abandoned house at the beginning, it probably doesn’t feel right to you, does it? That’s because grandma and cookies trigger ideas about comfort and warmth, while the house I was describing has a thoroughly chilly, haunted atmosphere to it.
You need to be intentional in the anchor points you choose and make sure they contribute to the character of your scene. Is it a celestial elven forest, a thrumming modern port city, or a raucous saloon at the edge of the frontier? You’d pick different anchors for each of these places to contribute to the overall feel of the whole: frenzied businessmen thrum, ethereal floating lights conjure wonder, and bawdy laughter filling the air has a raucous feel to it. Decide what you want your reader to feel about your scene, and then pick objects as anchors which play to that.
If you follow this simple system of using anchors and engaging your readers’ senses in a way that’s consistent with the character you want for your setting, your readers will have lost themselves in your vibrantly realized world within just a few sentences, and you’re well on the path to holding them spellbound as you unspool the rest of your story bit by bit in front of them.
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**A Vanishing Glow will be released Oct 1st, but you can buy it now on Amazon**
About the Book:
A VANISHING GLOW is the exciting opening to THE MYSTECH ARCANUM series, a deep and thrilling blend of steampunk and flintlock fantasy with mature themes.
It is an Age of Revolution, an Age of Industrialism. Constructs, living men who are as much brass and steel as they are flesh, man the factories and wage the wars of a ruling elite who gorge themselves on the fruits of the common man’s labor. Mystech, a brilliant fusion of magic and machine, gives rise to a new class of privileged inventors and merchants even as the country festers with wounds from decades of internal strife.
Only one man holds the promise of a brighter future: Nole Ryon, the crown prince. When his childhood friend Jason Tern answers his call for aid, the two of them set out to fight for the change their country needs in order to survive, even as shadowy foes frustrate their efforts. But soon, Jason and Nole’s idealistic mission of hope becomes a furious manhunt for a political murderer as the nation balances on the precipice of a country-wide civil war. Can they cut through the threads of intrigue to discover their true enemy before everything is lost?
Sweeping from the ancient cities at the heart of the nation to the dusty edges of the war-torn frontier, A Vanishing Glow tells a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and assassins, friends and lovers, who come together in a time of epic struggle. Here a brave officer risks everything to win back his estranged father’s respect; a brilliant young engineer attempts to atone for her sins; a war-weary commander tries to pick up the pieces of the life he lost; and a man touched by the gods struggles to prepare a nation for the coming of an ancient evil which only he can see. In the dying light of a once-prosperous society, amid twisting plots, suffering and betrayal, lost love and shattered dreams, all must fight for what they hold dear. Who will taste the fruits of victory and who will lie bloodied on the ground in the light of a vanishing glow?