Answer: What the author thinks will move you. Many readers will consider this as part of the plot or the action – hero sees something, hero learns or does something. But that’s just a fact, and probably one you could’ve predicted; our hero is a detective, of course she finds dead bodies. What’s more important is, where is this discovery set? Isolated woods? Grounds of a country estate? The rubbish pile of a fenced-off construction site? The setting of the action, and the details of how that particular setting differs from the general type, are what create emotional responses in the reader. When the body is found in the woods we might feel the victim agonized over their fate, as it was likely just them and the killer. For the country estate we might feel the victim deserved it, the setting suggests he was a rich toff who probably had wronged dozens of people. And for the rubbish heap, we might feel the most sympathy of all these cases – no one deserves to be discarded like trash. Of course, all that is dependent on the details the author gives you. What’s on the rubbish heap? Crushed stone, cement and rebar? Furniture and personal effects from bulldozed houses? Logs and shrubs from ripped-up landscaping? Whatever the choice is, it will tell you something about the world but, I guarantee, it will also make you feel something.
BTW before I go to much further I need to call out the source of the photo above. It’s from Deadloch, a hard to describe show from Australia – black-comedic mystery with absurd dashes is best I can do. Highly recommended.
Setting is something I’m looking at in my current work on ONLY’s END, a trilogy where Blair MacAlister and Terendurr the Black Stone contend with cruel master-criminal Bandal the Only. Book 1 will be two hundred fifty paperback pages (that’s my current guess). In all of that there’s around twenty-seven distinct settings. A few of these, like Terendurr’s office, are the backdrop for several scenes. How much do we need to know about an office? Sometimes it’s just the intent of the action:
With screens and projectors brought from the lab, and guest chairs arranged in ranks, the boss’ office had become a lecture hall.
But other times, the details (I think) help:
The Black Stone was behind his desk, just as I’ve seen him a thousand times or more. As Sandrine and I drew closer I was aware of the many familiar artifacts – the Phair executioner’s sword, Oro-Ka ritual gong, the Keret selling drum were things my eyes couldn’t help but light upon – but Terendurr was the only thing I really saw.
The one-time locations are in a way easier. You can’t invest an often-used location with too strong a default emotion, because you may want to vary the impression from that location. But with a one-time, I feel the more intense the better, like with the Dontoo Gardens, a public park that Blair visits with her beau, Theo:
We both laughed. Walking on, we became happy fairgoers, chatting with Raylic merchants, tasting bits of this and that offered by hawkers, with the faint drum and cymbal sound of Raylic music in the air. All around Raylic pups scampered in small packs, their parents and older siblings coming in their own packs behind, growling out cautions or encouragements as needed.
We continued our amble along the pathways of Dontoo. Music still wafted all about, though the crowds grew larger as we approached the area of the stage. On any day of good weather there were acts of various sorts – dance, acrobatics, puppetry – and today was fine.
With the bigger crowds came more hawkers. Now, the “hard sell” isn’t part of the Raylic character; where a Terran peddler would badger you to buy, a Raylic will just stand holding out their wares, if anything trying to look both pathetic and trustworthy.
Perhaps I was too interested in Theo and the charms of the gardens to see right in front of me. There was a hawker barring our way, an old Phair with tarnished-gold skin. He bounded side to side as we tried to pass by.
“Terran lady!” he exclaimed. “I have just the thing!” From a voluminous bag he withdrew an object and pressed it into my hand. Without thinking I looked at it. It was a small statuette, of a grimacing, sword-drawing warrior, made of warm brownish-white material. It fit in my palm perfectly, like a keepsake I’d had for years.
I won’t presume to tell you how you should feel, reading that, but I will tell you what I’m hoping for: A sense of safety, of family, a carnivale-like break from the real world, and finally a bit of foreboding of something different to come.
I’ll close by suggesting you reflect on settings from your own favorite books. Thinking on Lord of the Rings I think can name at least ten amazing settings without thinking, and can visualize almost all of them. Till next time …