Setting 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!)