Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to Pick the Right Setting

by Stephanie Morrill


In my early days of writing, I gave zero thought to setting. And it shows. Many of my early stories seem to take place with green screens behind my characters. At the time, I liked to think I wrote universal stories and that they would have more impact if I didn't give many details, if I just let the reader imagine the story unfolding in their place of residence.

I didn't yet understand that readers want to be transported.

I didn't yet understand that the setting of a story isn't just the time and place. If it were then if you asked me, "What's the setting of The Hunger Games?" it would be sufficient for me to say, "West Virginia, except they call it something different because it's set in an undetermined date in the future."


That's far from sufficient, isn't it?

That's because setting involves culture. Moods. Politics. Public opinion. Laws.

You should not be able to pick up your characters and your plot and easily move them to another location. If you can, you haven't taken full advantage of your setting.

For the fantasy or sci fi or historical writer, setting is often dictated by the story idea itself. If you want to write a book that takes place during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, already you've narrowed it down quite a bit - an east coast city in America in 1776.

But what about a contemporary writer? What if your books are set in the here and now? How do you pick a place?

The Skylar Hoyt books (my contemporary series) are set in Kansas City because that's where I went to high school. When I started them, I lived in Orlando, and I was out-of-my-mind homesick. But the Midwest setting dictated more than I had realized it would. Like I wanted Skylar to be uniquely beautiful. And uniquely beautiful in Kansas looks different than uniquely beautiful in other places. Which is how Skylar wound up Hawaiian.

Kudos to the art team at Revell for picking the perfect model for Skylar!
I set another (unpublished) contemporary series of mine in Visalia, California. The schools there have some serious struggles with gangs and drugs and such, and I wanted my main character - a shy goody-two shoes - to stick out.


It's also a small(er) town than others I considered, and since the main character locks herself into a secret relationship, I wanted the book to have a slightly small-town claustrophobic feel to it. 

Here's a check list of sorts that I've made for helping me think through the setting of contemporary ideas I'm composting : (Let's all bear in mind that so far my ideas all have teen girls for main characters.)

  • Would this story work better in a city, a small town, or in the country?
  • Where should this city be?
  • Should I make up a city or can I use one that exists?
  • How did my character come to live here? What do her parents do?
  • How does she feel about where she lives? What does she like/dislike?
  • Who's in charge of my character's world, or who does she perceive to be in charge? (I'm getting better at including "the man" in my manuscripts.)
  • What kind of laws exist? (I'm not talking about Click it or Ticket. I mean, is there a lunch table she can't sit at or a boy who's off limits. Those laws that aren't stated anywhere but everyone knows.)
  • What's are the socioeconomics of this place and where does she fall on the scale? (That's fancy for saying, "How wealthy is my character and how wealthy is everyone else?")
  • Does this place of a general moral code and does my character agree or disagree with it? 
Just asking/answering a few questions like that will prevent you from turning your setting into a mere time and place.

Have a question to add to the list? Leave it below!

21 comments:

  1. This is good, but what about a traveling setting? If you have a character that travels throughout the book, you won't have just one specific place where the story takes place...how could you make each place special?

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    1. Traveling has built-in contrast, which is always fun. =) Have you read the opening to DRACULA? It's a British hero, but he's traveling through Europe, headed for Transylvania. The entire description is colored through his perception of what's new and different. How weird the clothing looks, how different the food is, etc. I did something like that in my one Biblical too, as the characters traveled from Susa (desert) into Greece (farm land). The differences in their setting correspond to the moods and circumstances of the characters, which was tons of fun to do. =)

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    2. Now to come to think about it, my novel that I'm currently writing has 'traveling settings'. I never thought about having the perspective of the main character become in contrast with the setting (like how you explained about Dracula). Interesting, thanks for the different idea!

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  2. Setting Is important! Would HP be as good if Harry and friends were learning magic out of their backyard! NO! They go to a school with hidden rooms, and trees that punch stuff, and that has a dining hall with floating candles... And yeah, Hogwarts rules.
    Now that I think about it, in my favorite books, there is usually a distinct setting. Who knew? :P

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  3. One of the questions I always have to ask about my settings, which factor in time period as well as location, is: What makes this point in time different from any other?

    The answer ought to factor in fashion, customs, politics, beliefs, etc. For instance, in Philadelphia of 1776, not only was there an underground movement to oust the Loyalist politicians in control of the state, there was also a deep-rooted fear that the fearsome natives who had fought with them fifteen years before against the French would now side with the British. A valid fear, as it turns out. ;-) But one that didn't apply to any other time.

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  4. I enjoy using weather and time of year as well, to point to a place.

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  5. I love writing about setting. I try to make it what I would enjoy as a reader, so that it flows smoothly and doesn't distract from the story. My contemporary fantasy I am currently plotting is set in San Diego, California. Stephanie - your unpublished contemporary series about teenagers experimenting with drugs and alcohol sounds interesting, because the book I am working on is about teenagers experimenting with black magic instead of drugs/alcohol. The main character in the book is a christian trying to help the teenagers before they sell their eternal souls to a demon.

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  6. My sleeping WIP is in front of a green screen. I couldn't decide a setting so I just left it out.
    I know it's something I have to decide on eventually though.

    This question isn't all about setting but when it comes to composting do you have to know the answers to all the questions? That trips me up sometimes because I'm not able to sot down and answer them all. It makes me wonder if that means my idea isn't one to write a book about? Do I spend more time thinking it through? Just leave what I'm not sure about blank and move on? It's been confusing me.

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    1. You certainly shouldn't picture me sitting down with this list and working it all out before I start writing. These are things I think about while I'm doing dishes or playing with the kids, but I start writing as soon as I figure out my opening line and opening scene ... regardless of if I have everything figured out. Sometimes I have to write a chapter or two before I can get grounded enough in the story to answer those questions.

      Helpful?

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  7. I love writing my settings, but I'm not great at them. It depends what genre I'm currently writing. If it's in the countryside, or in a castle, I'm good, but just describing a town- especially a modern one, things get pretty boring.

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    1. I'm right there with you. It's a second draft thing for me.

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    2. Oh yes, those second drafts. Haha, I'm working on one of those right now...it's coming...slowly but surely.

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  8. Yup! It's almost like you have to start digging away to find the gems and set them aside

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  9. Mine is okay, I think. For now. However, I think I'm going to change towns as a second-draft, because I don't know much about the current setting. Oh well. I still have like 7k more to go on my rough draft! Any tips for adding sub-plots?

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  10. I don't have a town name or a state that the story's set in. I have the weather, and there are specific places in the town that are important to the story. It's a small town where everyone knows everyone for the most part. Is it okay if I make up a town for a contemporary novel or should it be in a real one?

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  11. Setting is definitely important, yet I've always questioned if I was supposed to describe my setting with a few sentences, or to slowly let it unfold - and should there be lots of detail or little? Thanks.

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  12. Since I've only always written historicals, setting has always been a factor I've looked at it pre-writing, but I'm lovin' that list. Would eliminate some of the get-to-a-scene-and-have-to-stop-to-Google-something. :)

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  13. And the times I need to type Giraffe. Oh, Stephanie, I meant to ask this the other day, is *that* why you have a Giraffe next to your timer?

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    1. Haha! Rachelle, I thought of that, too. XD Thanks for asking the question; I would've forgotten about it otherwise.

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    2. You girls are so funny. The reason THAT giraffe is with my timer is because Roseanna gave it to me, and it makes me think of her. And because my kids like to play with it when they come in my office.

      But the reason I started using GIRAFFE as a marker for "look this up later" is because my brother-in-law had bought me a giraffe statue for Christmas and named it Hemingway. So it seemed appropriate to put it on my desk. And then one day when I was editing and stuck on something, I was trying to come up with a word to put there, saw Hemingway, and typed in GIRAFFE. It kinda stuck :)

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  14. What if i havent been anywhere? Ive barely traveled and i love classic british novels. I want to write something like it but what can i do about the setting?

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