Writing Question: Setting?

Choosing the right setting can enhance a story, and describing that setting vividly can make the story sing. A strong setting can add to plot, atmosphere and characterization. To get a better idea of how to develop a setting, we asked Odyssey graduates,

How do you visualize your story’s setting? Do you model the setting after an actual place? Do you do research into a particular landscape, time period, or culture? Do you use photos from magazines, your imagination, or something else? Do you draw any elements of your setting or create diagrams or maps?

Jason S. Ridler, Class of 2005

I try to get to know a particular place well, either through actually going there or talking to people who have been there, to gain some specific details that might add resonance to the story, always remembering that no matter what cool details you have found, they have to reflect the character’s mindset: a jungle can be exotic and wondrous, but if you have dysentery it will be frightening and oppressive, no matter how pretty the foliage. Joe Lansdale wrote an excellent essay on how knowing a place well can help shape your voice as a storyteller (“A Hand on the Shoulder” in On Writing Horror:  A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association). Taking it to heart, I got to know Kingston, Ontario, very well: the creepy prisons, the cholera graveyard that is now a children’s park, the street names that reflect both a military past (Brock, Raglan), but also its criminal past (Rum Runner’s Alley, River Rat docks).

Dig deep enough, you’ll find things that are interesting just about everywhere.

Dave Stier, Class of 2002

If I am not describing a place that I have actually been to, I use the Internet. Google Images and Google Web, in particular. Another excellent source is Corbis at www.corbis.com. And since I write a fair amount of military and historical fiction, I also try to find old military topographical maps. For example, on a Civil War story I wrote concerning the battle of Fredericksburg, I went online and looked at situation maps of the entire battle over the course of the 5-day assault. That is when I discovered the one part of the battle that was not a Southern success. It concerned a flanking operation by George Meade (the Gettysburg Mead) that could have turned the entire battle into a Union victory had it been adequately supported. An excellent source for military maps is: http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/.

Mike DeLuca, Class of 2005

I use settings I know almost exclusively. I’ve set stories in the Yucatan, the Guatemalan highlands, the deserts of the southwest, Cape Cod, Boston and environs, and lots and lots of New England fields and woodlands and mountains, because I’ve been to those places and was impacted by them strongly enough that I’m able, with a bit of effort, to think back and immerse myself in them. And when I don’t do this–in the few stories I’ve written (and the fewer still I’ve sold) where I’ve tried to create a setting out of whole cloth–I know I can tell the difference, so I’m sure a reader can.

When I travel, I often take notes on little pieces of atmospheric detail, smells, colors, flavors, textures, light, plants and animals, people, clothes, terrain, transportation, etc., etc. I also tend to research places I visit somewhat obsessively. Not all of it is entirely writing-motivated–I don’t get to travel much, I love culture and history, and I’m somewhat a glutton for the senses–but I think a lot of it does end up getting used in my fiction one way or another.

When I do get around to writing about a place I’ve been, I go back and get my notes and my photos and the books I read. I look at maps–I use the Google satellite images a lot. If I can, I go back to that place–but when I’ve obsessed about a place like I usually do, I often find I don’t have to. I pay so much attention to my surroundings, I concentrate so much attention on these details when I’m there that later sitting at my desk it’s easy to stare off into space and find myself in those places again.

My biggest problem with setting is keeping it subordinate to the story, culling down all those details at my fingertips to the one–in the right place, at the right time–that will convey a character’s emotional state, slow down the pace where I need a beat, or communicate a physical limitation or detail essential to the plot, rather than just dispersing all my built-up momentum on a two-page description of a scene. I’m able to visualize my setting so vividly that in critiques I am not infrequently shocked to find that nobody else has the same vision of a scene. Actually that’s one of my favorite things to hear in a critique, because it’s something I know I can fix–and it means I get to go dig out a few more details.

Gerald Warfield, Class of 2010

I agree with Jason that no matter how cool the details they have to support something, such as the character’s mindset or the narrative. I use a lot of exotic settings, and I have to resist the temptation of thinking that the story is about those places. You don’t want to end up wondering: “how can I hang a story on this really interesting place” when, at least for the final product, the reverse should appear to be the case.

Another thing I would like to advocate is the use of photos to enhance a story. I don’t mean just looking at photos to get an idea of a setting, but actually publishing the photos along with the story. Okay, I know that’s kind of off-the-wall for fiction, but we’re going to try it in an anthology we have coming out in Texas. With one of my stories, set in a post-apocalypse Texas, I’ll show a picture of the current Weatherford (Texas) court house along with a caption something like: “The Weatherford court house. Here, fifty years from now, Bobbin will watch from the tower for the arrival of the Dallasite army.”

In my story that came out this year, “And Happiness Everlasting,” I tried to get the editor to publish a photo of the children that my protagonist went back in time to see. In that story, Eddie goes back in time to see his brother, the little boy who is crouched in front. When Eddie returns to his own time, he is stronger for realizing that he and his brother did, in fact, love one another, and that they could have been best of friends.

It seems to me that a photo of even my not-so-exotic settings would enhances a reader’s sense of time and place. From some of the other responses to this query, I can tell that photos also exist or could be obtained that would represent the time and place of those stories, too. I would be curious to see them.

Bob Sojka, Class of 2008

Setting almost always exists fully realized in my head on a scene-by-scene basis. As my characters make their critical meanderings through fictional space, my mind seems to balloon open the settings that they exist in for the scenes. I don’t know how that works; it just happens.

I’ve never drawn maps or the like. I think part of it is that I have never written a story up to this point where the precise geography or geometry was really essential to the story. I try to picture all settings in my mind as I write scenes. Much of what I write (if earth-based) draws from my personal experience. In fact, I am a little leery of writing fiction in earth-based settings that I have had no exposure to. When I write earth-based stories set someplace I am not familiar with, I spend a lot of time on Google, looking up geographic, community and cultural facts that need to be right-on for the story. I’ve traveled a good bit over the years, and worked for prolonged periods outside the US, so I have the luxury of being able to draw from those experiences; but even then you have to be careful not to be over-confident.

The further away (i.e. outer space) or distant in the future, the less I obsess about details, since my stories are never as setting-driven as anything like, say, the Coyoteseries by Allen Steele. . . . If your off-earth setting is essential to the story, it should have physics, chemistry, geology, planetary orbit, solar, atmospheric properties etc. that are scientifically accurate (or at least feasible). . . . I’ve read stories (usually high fantasy or the like) where the intricacies of setting have given me a kind of folding-game-board feeling as I read. What do I mean by that? I guess too arbitrarily artificial, constrained, convenient, quirky. . . . whatever. If the setting is really important to the driving energy of the story (and I mean REALLY important) I suspect it should be so organic that you need it to breathe, but at the same time are just as unaware of it as you are unaware of breathing–until something happens that prevents you from taking a breath.Being a retired agricultural/environmental scientist, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and published-sf stories that made me cringe because of the egregious unawareness of agricultural or environmental realities. Urban folks should be particularly careful when deciding to write stories that touch on environmental or agricultural phenomena, untamed landscapes, range or desert or forest settings, or even just rural life (just as we rubes should check in with urbanites when attempting to portray cities that never sleep). I think the homework factor is particularly demanding if the key aspect of the setting in question is anthropological.

The more a setting erodes the confidence that comes from personal experience, the more I seek trusted readers who have the appropriate backgrounds to help keep me from making an idiot of myself. Actually that principle is something I practice regardless of what story aspect I feel unsure of. The trick is recognizing your weaknesses, admitting the need for some help, and then getting it.

Sara King, Class of 2008

Setting is actually very hard for me. My weakest point, as any of my readers (or my agent, or my editors) will tell you. I don’t have a visual mind, so I’ve really gotta put a lot of effort into seeing a scene, and that really slows down the process for me. So, instead of sitting there getting frustrated at my glacial writing speed, the first draft includes very little setting–just generalities and stereotypical locales as place-holders–and I’ll blaze through it on almost entirely dialogue, action, and thought processes. (Talking Heads, anyone?) The first edit, therefore, is almost entirely working on setting, and I end up adding about 10% to the novel in that pass. It is here that I allow myself to go slow and add interesting little details that will fit with the dialogue, action, and thought processes, without distracting from the story. I generally tend to pull [the setting] out of articles that I’ve read, usually (since I’m writing science fiction most of the time) magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, etc. I just kind of take a bunch of different elements and slap them together and hope it comes out coherent. Like I said, setting’s not my best suit. Ask me about character or tension someday 🙂

Abby Goldsmith, Class of 2004

I’m in the midst of redesigning my website, so this URL is subject to change, but I drew a whole bunch of “fan art” for my Torth series.


It includes a map, a language, a digital painting of a city, and many character design concepts.

I have a strong preference towards otherworldly fiction. I wouldn’t call myself well-traveled, but I’ve traveled enough to see many different types of climates and cultures, which is the base from which I draw inspiration. I’ve also driven cross-country and lived for years on two opposite ends of the U.S.

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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