How important is setting to your story? Do you think much about setting? In some books it seems almost irrelevant. The story can take place anywhere—any small town, suburb or city will do since it doesn’t have much impact on the plot or characters.
But in my Ladies of Summerhill series (historical romance) I could only set the books in Newport, Rhode Island because the stories involve the richest people of the Gilded Age who loved to socialize and spend their time among their own elite crowd. This was the age of conspicuous consumption and Mrs. Astor’s ‘Four Hundred.’ That was the number who could comfortably fit in her New York ballroom.
America’s Gilded Age began after the Civil War and extended into the early twentieth century. This was the era of rapid and enormous economic and population growth. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and refers to the gilding of something with a superficial layer of gold. The phrase makes fun of the ostentatious display of wealth that characterized high society. These millionaires were industrialists, financiers and entrepreneurs whose names still ring with the sound of wealth—or former riches. Who hasn’t heard the names Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor and Vanderbilt? These so-called “robber barons” were sometimes admired and sometimes reviled by the common folk. But they and their life style fascinated their generation and ours as well.
During most of the year a lot of the super rich resided in New York or other East coast cities. But for the short summer season they flocked to places like Bar Harbor, Maine or Saratoga Springs, New York or the Berkshires or Adirondacks.
So the society itself can become a great part of the setting. If the Gilded Age social climbers are the main characters it might be better to set your story in a place like Newport or Saratoga Springs with horse races etc. They only vacationed in certain locations and with certain people. Exclusivity ruled the day. In books about the turn-of-the-century elite you’ll mainly find upper class characters and their servants, with a few ‘social climbers.’
Different places attracted different classes and types of people. While the millionaires who vacationed in Bar Harbor, Maine enjoyed a more sedate life and less ostentation, they purposely chose to stay away from Newport, the premier summer resort on the east coast. Make sure you pick the right location for the story you want to tell.
The people of the Gilded Age didn’t stay in one place for very long. They travelled from resort to resort in their private railcars with family and friends while enjoying their privileged lives -- for the most part. I’m happily following them to their other playgrounds.
My newest book, A Path toward Love, (available August 14th) also has Gilded Age millionaires (billionaires in 21st century dollars) as characters. But they enjoyed ‘roughing it’ in the mountains.
Sagamore, one of the Great Camps of the Adirondacks, was owned by Alfred Vanderbilt. The ‘campers’ loved the rural life, the sights and sounds of the forest, the call of the loon over secluded lakes, and the simple pleasures of hunting and fishing. But they did bring their taste for luxury and comfort even into the rustic north country.
“An Adirondack camp does not mean a canvas tent or a bark wigwam, but a permanent summer home where the fortunate owners assemble for several weeks each year and live in perfect comfort and even luxury,
tho in the heart of the woods, with no very near neighbors, no roads and no danger of intrusion.” - William Frederick Dix, Summer Life in Luxurious Adirondack Camps, 1903
Setting determines the kind of activities the story people take part in. Those hardy souls who camped in the Adirondacks fished, canoed, swam, hunted, hiked and picnicked. Since they owned enormous tracks of forested land, they had fewer neighbors to socialize with. They invited friends to visit. Unlike Newport there weren’t exclusive clubs to meet at every day or ornate ballrooms where the rich danced several times a week. The campers stayed close to home and led quieter, more relaxing lives.
They also lived a far less formal lifestyle than they did in the city or at other summer resorts. As writers, we have to take into account the kinds of personalities, temperaments, likes and dislikes our characters would have. The socially inclined would be out of their element in a mountain camp without constant entertainment and variety. But other types of people love the outdoors and thrive among nature’s beautiful environment.
It’s always fun to drop a character into a setting where she’s completely unsuited and see how she adapts. Or doesn’t.
A Path toward Love. This is a historical romance, set in the Adirondack Mountains during the summer of 1905.
Katherine came home to forget her past.
The last thing she expected is a hopeful future.
Young widow Katherine Osborne returns to her family’s rustic camp on Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. She’s determined to live a quiet life, but her socialite mother is equally determined to push her into a new marriage while she’s still young.
Andrew Townsend has known Katherine since they were children. An attorney who is successful, but not wealthy, he knows she is socially out of his reach. But he’s curious what changed the free-spirited girl he once knew into this private, somber young woman.
Katherine has kept hidden the details of her unsuccessful marriage. When past sins come to light, she must turn to God for the courage to be honest. But how can she trust the God she feels has let her down? When she confides in Andrew, their relationship takes a dramatic turn into uncharted territory.
Amid impossible obstacles, two young people must learn to trust enough to walk the path that God has cleared for them. A path that leads to healing and restoration. A path toward love.
Cara Lynn James has written three historical romances, Love on a Dime, Love on Assignment and Love by the Book. Her newest novel, A Path toward Love, is set during the Gilded Age in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Originally from Connecticut, Cara lives with her family in northwest Florida.