When Your Setting Takes On a Life of Its Own

Settings are arguably one of the most important factors in a story. Sure, you need well-developed characters and a decent plot, but characters need a place to hang out, stand, sleep, [insert other verbs here]. When I sit down to write, things come to me at random intervals, but I always try to establish some sort of setting first, otherwise it’s hard for me to picture what my characters are doing or how they’re reacting to things.

Gifted, as 100% of other books, was only a kernel of an idea when I decided to make it a novel. Then the circus came to town and took over my mind. It was the first thing I truly knew about my story besides the fact that Lucy was something I called a Firestarter. I knew when Lucy walked on the grounds, I’d need to at least set up the usual idea of a circus:

Donovan Circus was more than a handful of tents; it also had game booths, a few small rides like the pastel carousel, and a large, bright Ferris wheel. The lot wasn’t completely set up yet, but already I could see several people prep the grounds. Only circus vehicles like loading trucks and clown cars were allowed on the actual grounds. I found the employees’ makeshift parking lot maybe a quarter of a mile from the tents and parked. On a mostly gravel dirt lot, it sat close to a small wooded area.

The grounds were maze-like and I passed the same game booth at least twice. The tents were red, white, or black, and all made from the same heavy canvas material to prevent weather damage.

The circus itself was a character–the acts, the noises, the way people interact within the grounds. Because my setting for about 80% of the book is on the grounds, I wanted to dress it up, make sure there was magic to see whenever Lucy discovered a new character or detail on the grounds. I couldn’t have the Gifted Donovan Circus get boring! The key to my circus setting was to make everything a little unique to prevent the “typical” circus–the fat lady turns into a lithe ballerina, the guy swallowing swords actually eats metal for breakfast, certain animals can talk to certain people. I had only intended the circus to be the rallying point–the area where Lucy meets her new friends and how Gifted hide within the human world. It came so easy to me–why, of course a bunch of magical beings would hide in a circus. At night, they perform for humans, tricking them into thinking the magic they’re seeing is real–and it IS, but they don’t know that!

We followed the already worn walkway around a corner, where a sea of activity blinded me. Whereas the campers were quiet, the actual circus grounds thrived with members preparing for the day. My senses hit overdrive—colors, smells, and sounds assaulted me. Costumes covered in sequins and feathers were traded off between artists; my nose detected popcorn machines, sawdust with hay, and sweat, both human and animal. And the sounds! It was so loud between the people yelling, animals’ screeches, and equipment in use to set up stands and booths. I would have to shout at Delia to be heard.

The most important notion to get across was that everyone could be exactly who they are. By day, they are able to be themselves around each other, show off their talents and not worry about getting caught by unknowing humans. Donovan Circus is about 80% gifted, but even the 20% of humans there are used to the chaos that goes on inside the grounds.

I suddenly became very aware of why Sheffield and Delia warned me against being surprised. People made no secret of their gifts in safe company. I saw another Runner dart in and out of the crowd while Levitators floated seamlessly between the bodies. Birds flew all over, carried messages or small objects such as tools or costume props. The air filled with sounds of conversation, animals protested their displeasure of cages, and men barked orders on the best way to get tents up fast. My heart jumped when I saw two other male Firestarters walking together. One was dressed in half a clown costume. The other one flicked a lighter and began to juggle fireballs with the clown; they walked simultaneously as they tossed them back and forth to one another, gradually creating greater space between them. Walking five feet apart, they continued juggling and while most troupe members simply walked around them and rolled their eyes, a few walked through, seemingly oblivious to the fire whizzing past their heads.

Despite the fact that the circus plays a major role as a setting, it isn’t the main part of the story and I hoped people wouldn’t be disappointed if they didn’t read about the performances. Since Lucy is actually part of the staff, she sees behind the scenes of her circus. I wanted the focus to be on Lucy and her progress and because she isn’t on the main stage, we don’t see what the audience would see. We do see the ring a handful of times and I know readers get the general idea of how it should look, but it doesn’t detract from Lucy’s point of view, either.

So what was tough about writing a circus? A lot more than you’d think! Most of us have been to the circus at some point in our lives and I know I’m not the only one to visualize the red and white striped tents, the wandering clowns, petting zoo, or game booths. Research was important so I could nail the basic stuff down, such as how they set up their camping grounds or where they eat meals together. I watched the PBS documentary “Circus” about the Big Apple Circus and got an idea of what needed to happen–then I spun it to work to my Donovan Circus.

And then there was the fact I had to somehow convince tons of people to read the book–I found lots of people who are totally freaked out by clowns! (Don’t blame you guys. I will never see “It” for fear I’d never write another circus setting.)

What are some of your favorite settings? (Should I even bother saying “besides Hogwarts”?) What’s important to see in a setting to establish a strong storyline?

3 thoughts on “When Your Setting Takes On a Life of Its Own

  1. Suzy Turner says:

    I’m going to be really big-headed (!) and say one of my favourite settings is in my own books! It’s the province of British Columbia in Canada. When I visited back in 2009, it took my breath away… the stunning scenery was awe inspiring. But it wasn’t until I sat on a small beach at Powell River that my imagination began to run wild… I could see vampires and werewolves and other supernatural beings all around me. It was that setting that inspired me to write the trilogy!
    But yeah… I’d also go with Hogwarts… that is such an amazing world JK created!

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