So now you have a rough idea of plot, maybe a few key scenes, and the characters are coming to life. The next most important step is setting. This doesn’t have to be a long process but bringing to life the story world is just as vital as fleshing out the characters who live there.
Discovering the Setting
I usually let this happen organically – maybe the setting is the first spark for your story, like it was with my trilogy The Cloud Sisters. When I listen to country music, I imagine rolling hills and wide open spaces. This imagery inspired me to begin writing a series of books on an all-girl Australian country music band.
Or perhaps you’ve visualized the setting from the start and the description of it comes easily for you. It could be somewhere familiar, like your hometown or a city in your state or a favourite holiday destination.
Setting can also become a character all of its own or can be chosen deliberately to portray wider themes. The setting may even be the story, like for example if your character is adrift in the ocean after their boat sunk, or they are incarcerated in prison, or trekking through a blizzard.
You might even be writing about a place that is purely your invention, like in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. There are countless articles, books and blog posts on world-building out there to guide you. The great thing about world-building is the freedom to let your imagination run wild, as I found when I was working on a dystopian novel. (Still in first draft stage but I may get back to it eventually!)
Many writers (like the Australian author Di Morrissey) undertake research trips where they stay in exotic parts of the world and write about it. This is great if you can afford it, but your setting does not have to be exotic to be interesting. For example, I find city alleyways, abandoned houses and forests intensely beautiful and inspiring. Story ideas immediately spring to mind in these settings. And if the setting is too foreign to my own experience, I find it difficult as a reader to visualize it.
Of course, it’s easiest to evoke the setting if you’ve been to the part of the world you’re writing about – it’s simply a matter of recalling details – but I don’t think it’s necessary.
That’s because we have the internet.
With a bit of online research you can begin to till the soil of your story landscape and maybe even pluck out a few new story threads. Do an online search for the city or area where your story is set, read through statistics, look at Google images, immerse yourself as much as possible.
Look for unique details. What do the roads look like? What does the air smell like? What does the sky look like in that part of the world? Does the sun set in the east or west? Are there special hidden places? What do the locals do for fun?
Keep in mind too that town or city names in your story can be fictional but based on real places you have visited. This is my favourite method – that way, accuracy isn’t as important as describing a place that is innately familiar to most readers (or at least your target audience) and thus easily imagined. Everyone (or at least, most) people have been to small towns and big cities.
Once you have a visual picture of the setting, describe it in one page or use a Prompt Sheet like the one at the end of this post.
I’ve mentioned the beauty of Pinterest before in this post on creating characters, but it’s just as useful for settings. I have a board just for setting ideas. Visualizing a setting is imperative to describing it and making it come to life for the reader. Even better to have visual cues in front of you when composing the first draft to place yourself there while you write.
Google Earth is also a fun tool to use. Search for any address in the world and Google Earth will take you right there. Although I don’t use it a lot, it’s surprising to see places at ground level. You can get a better idea of perspective and see things that you may have missed. It’s also a good way to check for accuracy.
I hope these tips have sparked a few ideas. If you’re looking for a formal guide to creating setting, you might find the following Prompt Sheet helpful.
SETTING PROMPT SHEET
One paragraph description:
Places that will feature in scenes:
Unique attributes of the setting:
Significance of the setting to the characters:
The role of the setting in the story: