This Business of Writing

Tips for Establishing Setting in Your Novel

In The Craft of Writing on November 11, 2009 at 9:05 am

Setting is that aspect of your novel that gives the readers a sense of place and time. Read Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and you’ll see she does a wonderful job of putting her readers in the center of a medieval faire, complete with banners, knights, lords and ladies. You’ll almost hear the rumblings of carts over cobblestones. David L. Robbins jams his readers into the center of a gory World War II battlefield where you can just about feel the heat of the bullet as it zips by your head. How is it these and other authors are so adept at placing their readers in the middle of their novels?

They have mastered the art of setting.

To me, setting can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of novel writing. Think of it like this. You get to control the weather, the landscape and even what people wear. Now ain’t that fun? When you learn to effectively construct setting in your writing, you have developed the ability to bring to life not only your characters but the very ground upon which they walk.

So, how does one go about developing a believable setting?

First, let’s consider how it should be used. Author Joanne Reid says, “Setting should be like good wallpaper. It enhances your story, fits perfectly, and does not overwhelm the people in the room.”

With that in mind, let’s introduce several aspects to setting which you create to give your readers a full sense of time and place. They are:

1.      The geographical location of your story

2.      The time in which your story takes place

3.      The climate and/or weather in your story

4.      The lifestyle of your characters

5.      The atmosphere or emotional quality of your story

The geographical location of your novel is wherever you wish it or whatever is necessary to the story. It helps if you are able to write about a place you know, but it’s often more interesting if you create your own world as a backdrop to your manuscript. It is important your setting is as authentic as you can make it for readers can spot a mistake in less time than it took to write it.

The time in which your story takes place is again, whatever you wish or need to tell your tale. The type of story you craft will often dictate the time. The secret is to learn, or imagine as the case may be, as much about the era in which you write. In my case, I write about people involved in the American Civil War. Therefore, I walk the battlefields on which my stories will take place. I study the land, the roads, the natural defensive positions, locations of fences and the like. I seek out those towns with structures that date to the mid-nineteenth century and even photograph them, so as to better understand their architectural aspects. I visit museums where uniforms, dresses and even quilts of the time are exhibited. Then, as I write, all these things assist me in creating a true to life setting for my readers.

Climate is one of my favorite aspects to setting, though many writers forget to use it to its maximum advantage. To me, it offers so much in the way of establishing the mood of a scene. It also gives a writer any number of opportunities to incorporate sound and visual enhancements to their story.

Lifestyle is the day-to-day experiences of your characters. This is an aspect to setting that generally comes out in the story of its own volition. However, the best writers specifically use this as a tool in constructing setting.

Atmosphere is the mood or feeling of your book. It offers your reader the emotional quality of your story. As with all aspects of setting, it can change as the novel progresses.

How do you introduce setting to your readers?

As with any part of your novel, stay clear of info dumps. Bring your setting to the forefront by using all the tools available to you. Employ dialogue, narration, character actions, speech patterns and so on. Be cautious, however, of establishing your setting by lengthy narration for you never want to sound like a travel guide.

How might the author use setting? The major reasons are as follows:

To advance the plot or enhance conflict.

Think of how the setting might disrupt the plans of your antagonist or protagonist. Say your major character is being hunted by an assassin. How might an eclipse allow your hero to escape his intended murder? If your novel is based on a historical battle, how might rolling hills, like those on the Gettysburg Battlefield, influence the outcome?

Setting Creates Consistency within Plots and Subplots.

Your novel will have its plot points and subplots with delicate threads woven through the pages. A consistent setting can keep it all joined together so the reader mentally stays within a comfortable framework.

Use Setting to Enhance Conflict.

Think about a scene with rumbling thunder and stabs of lightning in the inky sky. Does that create more tension, whatever the scene, than say an idyllic spring day in the park? Should you wish to use that tranquil day among the flowers, how about plopping a flock of buzzards in the middle of that field. You think your reader would have a heightened sense of mood as the birds begin to circle overhead? You betcha!

Use it to Illustrate a Character’s Character.

The manner in which your characters speak, dress, move and curse will evoke in your reader a picture of this person. Imagine a dockhand who never utters a profane word. Would that image provide an insight into your character? What if your hero, Paul, always dressed in plaid and carried an ax? Would that be enough to exhibit his character or would he still need a blue ox to complete the picture?

Before I close, I’d like to offer you one last tip as to setting. Employ your readers’ five senses. All authors seem to work in sight and sound by rote, but many aspiring writers miss the other three senses. Ensure your characters also smell, taste and feel their surroundings and your readers will do the same.

Well, there’s your free writing lesson on setting. If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch.

I wish you success and best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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  1. For them, Michael Jordan is just a name bookshelf old magazine cover on the first layer, the boats were on the shoes my father. But for them, this name is young dream. Children, wish you could fly like them.

  2. Great post, Patrick. When you mentioned climate, I immediately thought of Dickens. His word-pictures of damp, dank London color my mental images of the city in a way that few other writers have managed to do. I find myself needing a fuzzy muffler and a hot toddy after reading the opening passage of Bleak House!

    Janice Campbell
    National Association of Independent Writers and Editors

    • Thank you, Janice, for your kind words.

      Though a long way from Dickens’ stature or talent, I do work to bring the elements into my writing with the hope my readers will respond the same way you do to his “Bleak House.”

      I do appreciate the time you took to comment.

      Patrick

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