Blank to 50K: Setting

Blank to 50K: SettingSetting is integral to the success of your story, except in the rarest of circumstances. I can’t think of a single book where the setting doesn’t matter. Consider The Life of Pi. It could’ve been set somewhere else, but it would still have to be a secluded location. Look at the Wizard of Oz – any other setting would change the book itself. In my own books, I set Fatal Impulse on an island in Maine to add another layer of insulation to Andi’s life. The water around the island is a symbol of the isolation she feels.

ENHANCE YOUR STORY

When you consider your setting, think about what location would enhance your story. Think in large terms first: which country? Rural or urban? Sophisticated or simple? Even your characters’ interactions with others should be taken into account, because where they live and work will affect them. Your plot will be intimately connected to your setting. Think about how far your character will drive to get from one place to another, or would it make your story better if everything is within walking distance (or shouting distance).

REAL OR MADE-UP?

Some will warn you against using actual locations. I don’t have a problem with it, but if you use a real location, do your research. This doesn’t mean you have to visit the location (though if you can, all the better), but do take the time to watch Youtube videos of the area, google it, read histories, read tourism brochures, watch their local news, read their local newspaper.

I read a book years ago by an author in New England. She set her book in Missouri. I was one of her first readers (we belonged to the same online group) and was stopped short while reading a passage that referenced the main character stepping out onto her hotel balcony in Kansas City, looking south towards the mountains. I sent her a polite note, letting her know that you can’t see mountains from Kansas City, and suggested that she might want to change that if she did a future print run or a second book in that setting. She replied to me, quite curtly, that she had done her research and that Missouri plainly had the Ozark Mountains. I let it go. It wasn’t worth arguing over (and it wasn’t the only error like that). But as a reader, it destroyed my faith in her as a writer and I didn’t recommend her book to others as I normally would.

WRITE A SETTING SKETCH

Once you’ve decided on the type of setting you want to use, write it out. I like going from bit to little here. Describe the setting from your main character’s point of view, then describe it as if you were on the outside looking in (imagine yourself up in the clouds, overlooking the area). After you’ve written a setting sketch, actually sketch your area. You can use real maps, real street views, real floor plans. I usually grab a map off of Google maps that is similar to what I’m looking for (in the mountains, on an island, etc.) and print it on a large piece of paper which I post near where I write. I also print the floor plans of locations that appear in my story. This keeps you from making continuity errors (heading north towards town in one scene, heading south towards town in a later scene).

You’ll want to do a setting sketch for every location that appears in your story, such as your character’s home, workplace, favorite cafe, coffee shop, friend’s house, etc.

Here are some things to get you started on your sketch (do this for each major location in your story):

  • Rural or urban?
  • Real or imaginary?
  • What does it look like from the outside?
  • What does it look like inside?
  • What does it smell like?
  • What does it sound like?
  • What memories does your main character associate with it?
  • How does your character feel about it?

I hope you’ve found my tips helpful. Feel free to share your own in the comments! (and if you haven’t signed up for my newsletter yet, pop over to the sidebar –> and give me your name and email address. I’ll be giving away tickets to Penned Con soon!)

How to Research Locations for Writing

Courtesy of Photo Morgue

Courtesy of Photo Morgue

We’ve all heard the old adage to write what you know, but seriously, how boring would that be? I want to learn just as much from writing as I do from reading. Although my first book, Denim & Diamonds, is set in Missouri, my second book is set in Maine. I’ve never been to Maine. Now, before anyone writes to me and points out every error in any of my books, let me point out that I write fiction. Sometimes I take creative license with exactly where things are or how they look. That said, I want the feel of my settings to come across to my readers, and I do research to be as accurate as possible.

For instance, here’s an excerpt from Fatal Impulse:

They drove down Main Street, rounded a curve and the harbor appeared before them. Tall masts sprung up from the boats like a forest of toothpicks, and white sails billowed in the salty breeze. As they turned into the parking lot, Andi was blown away by the number of cars already there. Parking would be at a premium after the tourists arrived after Memorial Day, but early May was still quiet. She drove down three aisles before she found a parking space.

Not lots of detail, but I used the senses of sight and smell, and incorporated the mention of tourists to give the idea of it being a touristy-area.

If you are writing about an area that you have not personally visited, there are lots of resources to draw upon.

  • People. Let folks know what you’re writing about and likely someone you know knows someone who is from there, or has visited there. Talk to them.
  • Books. Tourism books are great, but also pick up fictional books set in that area.
  • Google Earth. This is invaluable. You can actually “drive” the route you are talking about to see what the area is like.
  • Reviews. To include authentic details, read reviews of restaurants and shops in the area. You’ll pick up on all sorts of little details, like local specialties.

Word of warning: do your research, don’t wing it.

(as an aside: I read a book years ago by a woman from New Hampshire. Her book was set in Missouri. Her character stepped out of her motel room and looked “south at the Ozark Mountains.” This was mentioned several times in the book, about looking south at the mountains. I was acquainted with the writer, so I emailed with what I hoped was a helpful note about not being able to see the Ozarks from Kansas City, in case she decided to write another book set in Missouri. She sent back a snippy email that she was entirely capable of looking at a map and that the mountains should be clearly visible from Kansas City. Um, okay. I haven’t emailed her again, nor have I bothered to see if she wrote another book.)