What a Giraffe Taught Me About Settings

I suck at settings. Really, it’s my nemesis. The most consistent “feedback” I’ve gotten is “it feels like all your characters are standing around in a white room”. <sigh> Not fun. 

So I try harder. “Uhm… there’s a window and some blue curtains.”  Again I get the blank stare that tells me I’ve missed the mark. 

It’s not that I don’t pay attention to my surroundings and try to “see” as a writer would. One of my fondest memories is of coming out of a movie theater and noticing this one tiny weed with a darling little purple flower growing out a divot in the concrete sidewalk. There were no other plants for hundreds of yards. It was a very sterile area and yet this daring weed had managed to prosper and bloom. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared for several minutes.

But how the heck do I write that in such a way as to get the impact across?

So I’ve turned to Web Cams to help me. Some that my Mom introduced me to are ones watching a watering hole in Africa. Now, I’ll never go to Africa and probably won’t ever set a story in Africa but I can sure use it as an “alien” landscape. 

This is where the Giraffe comes in. 

I’ve seen plenty of nature shows. I was raised on them. But in nature shows the Giraffe nibbles a few leaves, runs off, ruts, has babies and then gets eaten by lions… all in less than an hour. 

Turns out in reality Giraffes eat slow. They stretch their necks up, slide out their tongue to grasp the yummy leaves, and draw the morsels into their mouths. Then they chew. And chew. Rinse repeat. There’s a rhythm to it that I never realized. It’s mesmerizing, hypnotic almost. 

Then there’s the tree itself. It’s leaves are not just one shade of green, but several. The lightest green is at the tips of the branches. These are the ones the Giraffe likes the most. The closer you get to the trunk the darker the leaves become. Surrounding the tree is brush. Brush that is lush and vibrant with colorful, small flowers. 

But what surprised me the most was the sounds. There were insects buzzing all around. There was a cacophony of birdsong. Some simple and similar to what I hear around my house, some with exotic, complicated harmonies.

Underlying the drone of insects and the song of birds was the soft swoosh, swoosh of the sluggishly moving water. 

So, if I based my story on just what I saw in nature shows my Giraffe would be labeled with an attention disorder and heavily medicated. The ground would be barren and brown. And there would be an eerie silence that had nothing to do with mood. 

All this boils down to the fact that for me to do setting well I’m going to have to “be” in the environment, not just watch it on TV or see it in pictures. 

How do you get your settings to “POP”? 

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