Settings are more important than most novice writers might realize. While the most basic idea behind a setting is the "where" of the story, one particular type of setting must usually be addressed in literary (and even non-literary) stories: cultural/historical settings.
Each story actually comes out of a culture. There are numerous other cultural influences on the setting of a story, regardless of the writer's ethnicity. For example, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club comes out of the Chinese/Chinese-American culture. All writers draw from their cultures. Understanding this cultural component of a story helps to flesh out the background against which the plot is happening.
Now add in the historical element, or the period of time in which these events occur, and you have a more full setting. An examination of Alice Walker's The Color Purple clearly illustrates this. It's not just enough to know that you are dealing with a Southern, rural African-American culture; you have to also factor in the time period in which the events of the story are happening.
And why is any of this important?
It boils down to one word: Verisimilitude (a fancy word for "ringing true").
So you wouldn't see Miss Sophia running for the office of president of the United States, given the cultural/historic setting of the story, nor would a reader be able to appreciate the magnitude of the piano as a symbol in Amy Tan's story "Two Kinds," unless the reader could appreciate the cultural/historical elements that shape the conflict of the story.
While it's easy to just write a story and have the reader assume the cultural/historical elements of your setting, it is better to drop in a few references. After all, good writing should survive your lifetime, and if you want people to understand what you were talking about in your work, you have to frame it properly.
A while back, I wrote an entry addressing some of my thoughts on editing. Since then (and since a number of my present, past, and future students have managed to find this page), I have decided to do several entries on the craft of writing. I'll be sure to tag all of these posts with the words "Writing Tips" for quicker reference in the archives.
So let's begin...
One of the most difficult aspects of creative writing that I continue to wrestle with every time I sit down to write is Point of View (POV). I have at times labored over this one element for months on end, sometimes getting one hundred pages into a draft before starting over with another POV.
There are three general categories of POV: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. (Some scholars say that there's a fourth category, which is blending the different POVs--but that's beyond the scope of this entry.)
First person works are typically characterized by their usage of first person pronouns (I, me, my, We, us, our) and allow the reader to be directly in the mind of the narrator of the story (a character who may or may not be the protagonist--but I'll save that for another day). The obvious limitations for this particular POV (which can be heavily favored by new writers) are that you are confined only to what the character can actually perceive. For example, if the narrator is in a classroom, she can't discuss things going on in a totally different building (unless she can see it from that classroom). This limitation throws some people for a loop, mainly because it requires that the writer seriously consider who should be telling the story in the first place. Another limitation is that, just like real people, we have to question how credible the character is who is telling us these things. A final limitation is that some writers use this POV as an excuse to hide hideous writing by saying, "I'm just speaking in the voice of the character." It's one thing to write the next PUSH, but every writer needs to master grammar--period.
While most people tend to use second person for recipes, instructions, and directions, there are instances where 2nd person can be used effectively in fiction. Second person, usually characterized by the use of the word "you" (either directly expressed or implied) can sometimes be a bit tricky. After all, doesn't 1st person by default indicate that there is a "you" who is on the receiving end of a story? Most writers tend to look at 2nd person as more of an active "you," as opposed to a passive "you," and typically there are two key ways this is accomplished: (1) where "you" are the receiver of the narrator's actions ("There you are my dear friend. We haven't seen each other in years, but tonight I will have my revenge!") and (2) where "you" are put in the place of the protagonist ("You wake in the morning to find that you have turned into a gigantic bug!"). Many writers choose to avoid this POV, especially for longer works, but there are several authors who have pulled this off successfully in longer works, writers like Tayari Jones and Iain Pears.
This category actually has three different types (although the third category mentioned here often goes overlooked). All three are characterized by third person pronouns (he, she, it, they, etc.).
* Omniscient - This 3rd Person POV is "all knowing." In other words, the reader can see inside the heads of all of the characters, get background history, and basically get a god's eye view of the story. Fairy tales are pretty rudimentary examples of this, although there are many authors (like Stephen King) who employ this POV from time to time. The risk of using this type of POV is that, if not executed well, it could create greater distance between the readers and the characters or worse: muddy up the plot with a lot of extraneous information.
* Limited (or Limited Omniscient) - This 3rd Person POV allows the reader to follow the thoughts of one character, although many writers may choose to shift limited perspectives in other sections of a book. This is perhaps the most common POV of them all, 1st and 2nd included. While there is nothing wrong with using this POV, do understand that it is about as ubiquitous as an iPhone, so you will have to write really well to elevate yourself from the crowd--oh yeah, and having a great story wouldn't hurt either.
* Dramatic - This is the most overlooked POV of them all. This POV allows the story to be told without putting you inside the heads of any of the characters. Without knowing their inner thoughts, the reader is left to determine their motivations strictly based on their actions and their words--just like in Theater, sans the soliloquies. Richard Price's Lush Life uses this POV very well, although most writers will at some point lapse into one of the other 3rd person POVs. The main problem with this POV is that it requires what some might view as an excessive amount of dialogue or narrative, without any thoughts to break everything up. If, however, you really want to see a writer freak the 3rd person POV for real, check out Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," where he manages to hit upon all three 3rd person POVs in the same story.
Well, that's it for this entry. I wish there was an easy way of selecting a POV, but many times the story itself will demand how it should be written. In the meantime, feel free to practice writing under any of these POVs until the day comes when you start your novel.