Setting: Using Detail to Make Your Place, and Your Story, Real

Wednesday, September 14, 2016
A hot geyser in Rotorua (Pixabay)
Just a few days ago, I read a blog post by Sophie Masson about using real-world settings to inspire your fiction. Not surprisingly, the author had just been someplace exotic. In this case, she had visited New Zealand’s Rotorua where geothermal activity assures constant geysers, steam and bubbling pools of mud. The combination creates an atmosphere that is haunting, otherworldly, and more than a bit mysterious. Reading her descriptions, it was easy to pick up on the details that had captured her imagination. Sights, smells and sounds abounded.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to set your story some place exotic to bring it to life. Whether you set the story in your home town or the city where you went to college, the key to bringing it to life is in the details. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Employ as many senses as possible. Often we tell how a place looks. We discuss color and describe buildings and streets. But go beyond sight – that’s the easiest sense to incorporate. Include the sounds of street cars, street vendors calling out to passersby, or the local birds. Incorporate the smells of food cooking or flowers blooming. For a sense of touch, go beyond textures to include the sense of motion.

Be sure to include what gives your setting its sense of place. In my hometown, the water, though technically drinkable, always reeks of rotten eggs. When I was in Albuquerque, I was impressed with how big the sky is and the fact that you can see the distant shadows cast by banks of clouds. Myrtle Beach? The constant sound of the surf caught my attention.

Match the setting details to the tone of your story. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell maintains a note of hope but the overall tone is grim. Not only did he set the story in one of Missouri’s poorest areas, he set it in grim, grey winter. Consider the difference it will make if you set your story about rebirth in the spring vs the fall.

Your setting doesn’t have to be exotic to feel real. Simply bring details forward and use them to net your reader into just the right place and time for your particular story.


Sue Bradford Edwards is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next section of this class begins on October 3rd.


Marcia Peterson said...

Good tips, Sue! For more learning on this topic, WOW has an online class starting at the end of October!

Renee Roberson said...

Several years ago I read "The Moon Sisters" by Therese Walsh, and it had a very unique cranberry bog in West Virginia (I believe) that made for a great setting. Thanks for the tips!

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