Today I’m going to talk about a crucial element of your novel — the setting — while indulging in one of my favourite period dramas: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. If you haven’t read this or watched the BBC miniseries yet, do! It’s delightful.
The contrasting landscapes of the rural South and the industrial North in “North & South” don’t merely set the stage—they epitomize the cultural, social, and economic divides of the era. The serene, pastoral environment of Margaret Hale’s southern home stands in stark contrast to the smoky, bustling factories of Milton in the North. These settings don’t just paint vivid imagery; they actually represent the underlying societal tensions.
To create such living, breathing settings, you really have to throw yourself into it all: physical landscapes, the societal norms of the time, the tangible sensations of a place, and the inherent symbolism. Gaskell masterfully captures the grit and grime of the industrial North, allowing readers to almost hear the factory machines and feel the soot. A well-drawn setting has the power to stir emotions. The stark contrast between tranquil Helstone and tumultuous Milton not only accentuates the societal disparities but also magnifies Margaret’s internal conflict and sense of displacement. Of course, it isn’t so simple as to say one is better than the other – when Margaret travels back South, near the end of the novel, she realizes how she’s been idealizing it in her mind. In this was the setting actually helps & represents her own character growth.
For writers aiming to master the art of setting, begin by sketching the broader environment, then refine the details. Reflect on how your chosen setting can impact your characters, either aiding or thwarting their pursuits. As the narrative evolves, ensure that the setting remains consistent, adapting and growing with the story’s progression. As North & South beautifully demonstrates, it’s an integral element that shapes, defines, and propels the story forward. As writers, we must treat it with the same care and importance as our characters.
And now I’m off to re-watch Richard Armitage. Happy Writing!