Tracey S. Phillips asks: How is Setting a Character in Fiction

Tracey S. Phillips asks: How is Setting a Character in Fiction

Tracey S. Phillips is not only the author of Best Kept Secrets, she is our esteemed founder and leader. You can find out more about her here, see her book here, and read her last post here.

It’s almost springtime in the state that I call home, but I’m not overly anxious for it. My  favorite room in our house was an add-on designed by my husband and is directly above our two-car garage. The four season sunroom faces south. Expansive six-foot windows open three sides to the outdoors where our home nestles in old maple and oak trees. Heated by sunshine and colored by the autumn leaves, the room feels like a big tree fort and it’s where we live. And trust me, this room is a character.

From this second-story room, we watch storms come and go. We nap and love to read on the swinging bed near the corner windows. I’ve lined south-facing windows with plants. Typical spider and aloe plants, varieties of succulents, African violets, and flowering orchids. During the cold months, the orchids bloom and remind us that it’s warmer someplace. 

My husband says my house-plants feed us with much needed oxygen. But I care for them for other reasons, too. The African Violets came from my mother’s home and she inherited them from her grandmother. The blooming succulents with red flowers that last for months thrive in a sunny south-facing window, like the Aloe that spreads like a weed. They came from my grandmother’s home. 

I tend to seven varieties of orchids like they’re my children. I carry them to the kitchen for water them and let the runoff  go down the sink. I stake their blossoms and trim dead leaves. My reward is colorful blooms that last for months.  

The monstrous Night Blooming Cereus resides in the center window and is decidedly the ugliest. Unless it blooms. In the early 1900’s Night Blooming Cereus plants were coveted as parlor plants belonging to socialites and sophisticates because when they flowered, it was a party-worthy event. Drinks served all around! On the very rare occasion that my plant hosts a flower—once a year at best—it offers up a large, divine ornament. That single blossom spreads the most compelling perfume filling the entire house. The enticing tendrils and sticky stamen are designed to draw varieties of large nocturnal moths. Yet all beauty must come at a price. The flower lasts only until dawn the following day. 

As a resident of one of the northernmost states, I bask in warm summers that rarely get too hot for my comfort. I anticipate the Fall colors and rake the downfall of leaves when they bury my driveway. I bundle up in Winter and take walks in the new-fallen snow. The four-season room in my house brings me closer to nature. In real life and in fiction, I see setting as a character. I love to travel and experience unfamiliar places. When I’m not in Wisconsin, I’m walking along a beach or hiking a trail, gathering ideas for the setting of my next book.

How is setting a character in your books?

Tracey S. Phillips

Tracey S. Phillips is the founder of Blackbird Writers and the author of Best Kept Secret. You can find out more about her on her website, www.traceysphillips.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. marilynlevinson

    What a beautiful room!
    The Clover Ridge Library, one of the centuries-old buildings facing the village green, is an integral aspect of my series.

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Libraries have so much character! I want to add a library scene to my next psy- thriller!

  2. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks for highlighting setting, one of my favorite story elements. I love your sunny, window-filled room, and on the second floor where you get a fabulous view. Lucky you. I’ve never lived in a two-story house but have always wanted to, mainly for the view and to have a grand staircase ascending to “the unknown” in my fanciful imagination! The setting of my book series is Botanic Hill, fashioned after the neighbor where I grew up and still live. It has picturesque street names, e.g., Walnut, Nutmeg, Jacaranda, Little Flower, etc., which is where I got my idea.

  3. Tracey Phillips

    Sherrill, I loved the setting of Nutmeg street. It’s fun to visit new places in books. There’s a reason that Arm-chair traveling is a “thing”! After the last year, traveling by book is a great way to see the world.

  4. Saralyn Richard

    Your “everything” room is inspirational! Like you, I care for a plant that my mother cared for. And the main character in my WIP tends orchids. Unlike you and that character, I have tried in vain to get an orchid to rebloom for three years! It’s still alive, but no signs of growth.

    When it comes to settings, I love writing about the lush and peaceful Brandywine Valley. It’s the last place one would expect to find a murder.

  5. Tracey Phillips

    Saralyn, here’s a few orchid tips! Always transplant orchids from their store-bought containers into something larger. Don’t bother with the ice cube treatment recommended by others. Soak the orchid’s soil in a sink and let it fully drain once a week or less often, depending on the level of moisture in the air. I sometimes spray the exposed roots with water between watering. They love sunshine for part of the day, morning or afternoon, it doesn’t matter, so place them in a sunny window.

    Brandywine Valley is gorgeous! Your descriptions have made me want to visit that part of the country.

  6. Christine DeSmet

    My Door County, Wisconsin setting in my Fudge Shop Mystery Series is EVERYTHING. The harbor and lake and the wonderful cliffs and beaches and quaint villages and lighthouses (most in any county in the nation) set the tone for everything that is “cozy interesting” in my series. I have a Thanksgiving cactus handed down through slips from probably a couple of grandmothers or more in my mother’s background. It has a couple of blossoms on it now for Easter, which I think is pretty sweet and a tribute to Mom whose birthday is in April. Mom also loved violets and she always had them in the windows at our farmhouse and was always growing new slips and colors to exchange with Grandma or neighbors. Violets were considered great gifts at one time, if I recall, and still are. I’m looking forward to garden shows coming back in person.

  7. Tracey Phillips

    Christine, Door county is beautiful and your portrayal is lovely. Any arm-chair traveler would be satisfied with your descriptions.
    I adopted four LARGE African violets and they are thriving. I only wonder, how big can they get?

  8. Laurie's Story

    Tracey, thank you for sharing your room with us, it truly is magical and seems a great place to write as well. How smart you and your hubbie are to create a space that safely places you up front and center to nature’s wonderful seasons. And you brought the most beautiful of nature indoors with you –in the form of exotic flowers that also have nostalgic value. Clever girl!

  9. Tracey Phillips

    Thank you Laurie! We actually built the room out of necessity. When we bought the house, there was a rotten deck on top of the flat roof on the garage. The flat roof (something no one should ever built in Wisconsin) was leaking into the garage and laundry room. Rather than fix the roof, which would have failed again eventually, we needed a permanent solution.
    Sometimes it’s nice to be married to a builder!

  10. Laurie Buchanan

    Tracey — I love the photograph of your second-story room!

    Like many of the other commenters have said, setting is one of my favorite story elements. The (fictitious) Pines & Quill writing retreat on twenty wooded-acres in the Pacific Northwest in my Sean McPherson novels is essential to the storyline. I love writing in a way that makes the reader feel like they’re in the midst of it all.

    1. Tracey Phillips

      I thoroughly agree, Laurie! And I can’t wait to discuss it (and your book!) later this week.

  11. Sheila Lowe

    That’s a room almost any author could live in, Tracey. DEAD LETTERS (next book) is set in some “exotic” places–Egypt and Gibraltar, as well as the UK–which become as important as character. I visited the Rock a few months before Covid. There’s something about being at the top of that hunk of limestone (known as Jabel-al-Tariq) that makes you feel like you could conquer the world.

  12. Tracey Phillips

    Sheila, Egypt is on my bucket list. I envy you and can’t wait to read Dead Letters!

  13. Tracey, I love your room! I have an African violet that came from my mother via her grandmother. No telling how old that plant is but it has to be over half a century. It has been repotted but also gets some neglect, and it still stays beautiful and blooms frequently. Very hardy little plant. I love books where setting is treated like a character!

  14. Tracey Phillips

    Margaret, my great grandmother cultivated dozens of small plants in a sunny window. I think a few of mine came from her original stock! They are hearty! And I love the settings of your books too. I miss the Colorado mountains.

  15. Sharon Lynn

    Wow, those orchids are gorgeous!
    I love a rich setting. When I read about walking into a room I want everything in it to telegraph what the story is about. I wrote a short story with a rather evil sister and I filled her front yard with daffodils. Now, why do that? In the next draft her hard was covered in invasive knapweed – a much better representation of her personality.
    You should definitely have us all over for a party when your Cereus blooms 🙂

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Sharon, you’re right! knapweed is more telling of the evil within. When I wrote Caryn Klein’s chapters, her house was as stark as her personality. She didn’t care about beautiful things. But I would love a character who tended to a garden but not their relationships. I could go deeply into that one!

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