Sunday, April 27, 2014

Setting Tattoos the Character

By Barbara Claypole White

A few years back, I was fortunate enough to do a workshop with Stephen Barr of Writers House. He talked about conflict born of setting, about how setting can complicate, ruin or create a sense of safety in your story. And then he said something I will never forget: The setting tattoos the character.

This has become one of my writing mantras. (In case I ever need reminding, it’s scrawled on a neon
pink Post-it note attached to my pin board.)

The inspiration for my fiction has two sources: I’m a woodland gardener in the forests of North Carolina and the mother of a brilliant young man who battles a crippling anxiety disorder—with courage and humor.
In my mind, my son’s struggles are transformed into an image of light coming through the trees. The heavily forested land surrounding our home is a place of deep shade and dancing light. It echoes with the past: there’s a historic trading path worn smooth by Native American moccasins, an abandoned family burial plot and a tumbled down homestead that’s surrounded by daffodils every spring. We have hawks and venomous snakes, woodpeckers that rat-a-tat-tat constantly and indigenous, carnivorous plants. This place of danger, hidden beauty and forgotten memories has been whispering to me for nineteen years. It’s also the setting for my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which was published in January by Harlequin MIRA.
The title is a reference to my favorite time in our forest, that magical almost spiritual hour at the close of day called the gloaming. The birds call each other home for the night, the shadows grow long and the sinking sun hits the treetops so they blaze gold. For me, that light flickering between the leaves epitomizes hope, which is a recurring motif in the novel.
THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR is a story of light shining through the trees. My characters come from two broken families each fighting unwanted memories and invisible disabilities—severe grief and clinical depression. Yet their coming together brings healing.
Much like the wild honeysuckle and poison ivy on our land, the forest is woven through every aspect of this story, through every plot twist. It has tattooed each of my characters in different ways—some good, some bad—becoming an integral part of their past, present and future. The fate of each character is played out through his or her connection to the land.
THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR is also my love letter to my little corner of the North Carolina forest. When the Southern independent booksellers chose it as a winter 2014 Okra pick, they were recommending it as Southern fiction. They were endorsing THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR as a novel about the Southern landscape.
A setting is more than just a backdrop. It provides a rich opportunity to deepen your story and add layers to your characters. When a setting whispers, I urge you to listen.

Barbara Claypole White is the author of THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, which won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick, is the story of two broken families coming together to heal in rural North Carolina. Visit her at, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.



  1. I'm a big fan of the way you so beautifully "tattoo" your settings, Barbara. Thanks for the nice reminder.

  2. Here, here... Ms. Spielman said it perfectly and so so did you! So I'm wondering, will you ever set a book in England?

  3. Thanks, guys. Funny you could ask that, Laura. Have to confess, I do have a hankering to set something in my childhood village. :)

  4. Great essay, Barbara. I think the South leaves a big old tattoo on a character :)