As a child, did you have a special summer place? A beach house, or a lake cabin? One that’s been in the family for years, rich in history, stocked with croquet mallets, special iced tea glasses, and a rusty rotary lawn mower?

For me the special summer place was my great uncle Robert’s farm on a hillside near Reading, Pa. “Uncle Locker,” as we called him, was, as far as I knew, born old. He loved his John Deere tractor but didn’t particularly like children, especially not after my younger brother dropped the tin dipping cup down the front yard well.

Uncle Locker raised sheep. He stocked the lower pond with trout. He had connected a Revolutionary War–era log cabin with a Victorian–era farmhouse, erecting a soaring brick-floored, high-windowed living room between them. In that living room was a candy dish that each day magically refilled itself with M&M’s. (I suspect now that it was my great aunt Margaret who was the magician.)

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In the evenings Uncle Locker would read the newspaper on the glassed-in porch, classical symphonies          crackling on his portable transistor radio as summer lightning flashed across the valley. That, today, is my
mental image of perfect contentment. When I hear a radio crackle in a storm, I relax. I miss my Uncle Locker with a sharp pang.

Now, let me ask you this: Without looking back over what you just read, what do you remember best about what I wrote? Was it a detail, like the dipping cup, the M&M’s, or the lightning? Or was it the feeling of contentment that, for me, accompanies an approaching storm? Whatever your answer, I would argue that you remember what you remember not because of the details themselves or the emotions they invoke in me, but because both those details and personal feelings are present.

In other words, it is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story’s characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel.

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