Misha Crews

Love stories about old houses and family secrets.

When I first undertook the subject of Setting, I thought I’d blow through it in one blog.  Six hundred words, subject covered.  No sweat, right?  Um, wrong. 

As I began to write about Setting, as I started to think about it and distill my thoughts into semi-intelligible sentences, I started coming to more deep and complete understanding of the subject.  The more I wrote, the more I understood.  And the more I understood, the more I wanted to write!  So then I thought I’d split the subject into two parts: the mechanics of setting, and the subtler side of setting.  Twelve hundred words, subject covered, right?  Um, again – wrong!

So I now have three parts, and it’s still growing!  I’ve stopped counting words and I have no idea when (or if) the subject of setting will ever be exhausted.  And if nothing else, I’m learning a lot by writing these blogs!  I hope that someone else finds some good in them, too.

Step 1: Where and When

Setting is vital element of writing. But what exactly is setting, and how can you use it to enhance the story you’re trying to tell?

In breaking down the subject of setting, we can see that the absolute bottom-line, nitty-gritty of it is WHERE and WHEN. Where and when does your story take place?

Of course it’s easy to see how this matters if you’re writing a World War 2 epic, or a science fiction novel: the 1940s in London is a heck of a lot different than 3010 on the moons of Jupiter. But it also matters when you’re writing any modern day novel, whether it’s romance, mystery, thriller, etc., because the where and when will effect many aspects of your story and your characters.

Some examples:

  • F. Paul Wilson sets his Repairman Jack novels in modern-day New York.
  • Holly Jacobs sets many of her romance novels in the fictional town of Whedon, Pennsylvania.
  • James Ellroy set his LA Crime novels in mid-20th Century Los Angeles.

In each of these cases the where and when affects the who and what – the setting affects the characters and the plotline. It doesn’t necessarily dictate plot or create the characters for you, but it definitely does have an effect on both (we’ll go in-depth on this subject in a later blog!).

For a quick example, imagine a single woman raising a child on her own. Whether she lives in 1629, 1993 or 3010 will make a difference in her parenting style and the set of obstacles she has to face, not to mention the entire concept of her own identity as a human being, and her concept of the identity of her child.

So, WHERE and WHEN does your story take place?

Step 2: Make it Realistic

Research, research, research. If you are writing about a place and time that is unfamiliar to you, make sure you do your homework! My second novel, Still Waters, is set in the mid-1950s in Arlington, Virginia. I was very familiar with the place, but – aside from many years of watching Hitchcock films – not too familiar with the time period.

To research the period, I spent hours in the library, reading newspapers from the months during which my novel was set. I also found a 1950s map of the area and was able to identify what some of the streets were called at that time. I didn’t use all of this information in the book, of course, but it made it easier for me to set my mind to that place in that time.

And here’s a hint: you can often find newspapers going back to the 19th Century. One of my local papers has been around since the early 1800s, and has back issues on microfiche that go way back to the beginning!

Confirm, confirm, confirm. There are always tiny details of life in various eras that can’t be found in books. And the danger of writing about any place or time outside of our experience is that our conceptions are shaped very much by movies and books, which may or may not be accurate. Hopefully your rolodex (or Facebook friend list) includes one or more people who have education about or experience with your chosen time and place. Ask them questions while you’re writing, and/or have them read your manuscript when it’s finished. Tell them to cast their expert eye on the details and confirm that you haven’t written anything too embarrassingly wrong!

Relax, relax, relax. There is only so much you can do to make a time period accurate, and the primary jobs of a fiction writer are to create an emotional connection with the reader, and tell a good story. You can kill yourself – and your story, for that matter – by becoming obsessed over the details. Make it as accurate as possible, and then just relax, knowing that you’ve done the best you can.

Setting should serve your story, not the other way around. (Unless you’re James Michener, of course, but that’s a whole other blog!)
What settings do you enjoy when you’re reading a book or watching a movie?

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