I got up this morning and looked out the window at the sludgy snow and ice, the bare black bleak branches on the trees and the weak winter light and it occurred to me that this would be a good time to talk about setting and seasons in our work. When you create a story do you take the time to think about the setting--besides whether it is set in a small town, or city or suburbs? Some stories need seasons for their purpose- example a Christmas story or a Valentine's romance. Halloween is good for a creepy horror story. But even better take a bleak setting for a joyful story or a warm lovely sunny day for a murder. It is the unexpected that draws the reader in.
I wrote a story once where the protagonist came home to ask her estranged father for help. She was desperate. It was the only reason she was even at his door. In the background a storm brewed and she stood staring at him in the pouring rain. They hadn't seen each other in 15 years and her father was a bitter man. She had no where else to turn. Lightning crackled. Thunder boomed. The wind tore at her clothing and rain drenched her back. I thought, wow awesome atmosphere. Will he take her back?
My editor's reaction was very different. She thought the whole thing was too melodramatic and cliche. Did I have something else?
Lesson learned. Contrasting setting lends itself to story questions, tension and suspense. It keeps the reader turning pages. Think serial killer who is a popular teacher at an elementary school. Scary, right?
How much different my story would have been if I set my desperate character facing her father on a bright sunny day at a church carnival with children laughing and running around them. Balloons and cotton candy smells fill the air. Her father could turn his back on her with no guilt. Play with the other children as if she didn't exist. The party atmosphere would have left her feeling isolated and alone and perhaps more desperate then before. She would have to beg in the sunshine in front of witnesses. The happy atmosphere in sharp contrast to her desperation.
Carefully choosing seasons and setting with an eye toward the unusual will create a story that is a fresh and vivid. Think about atmosphere that contrasts mood for a more sophisticated, realistic story. One that makes the reader look around and think--this could be here. It could be now. It could be me.