As writers, we all have our favorite setting in which to tell stories, and we also have our favorite passages that establish those setting. As a reader I've seen the masters at work, from the arid tone and sparseness of Capote's In Cold Blood...
"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'"
...to the rambling, darkly poetic tour of Manderly in DuMarrier's Rebecca...
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate."
But let's make it personal. How do YOU establish setting in your fiction?
On a range of "the setting is another character" to "a few words about the weather and the name of the town is more than enough," how important is setting to your stories?
Bill Craig: In my Marlow books, Key West is every bit a character as well as setting.
Bobby Nash: The vast majority of the time, setting is very important to me and my work, especially in a series where the setting is visited and revisited often. Sommersville is a fictional city and county I created that has become an important location in multiple books fronted by different characters. I think it’s a very important character in the stories. I want the reader to have a feel for the settings.
Murky Master: So it depends. In the last two short stories I wrote, they were short so going verbose on the setting wasn't an option. In my novel, it's set in San Antonio and I didn't really think much about establishing setting in that one. But, when I write my fantasy stories, I like to think of it this way.
Ian Totten: Setting is extremely important to me. When I write I see everything in my mind and try to convey that to the readers. Generally speaking, my settings either serve to create a sense of dread (such as the place where a killer is going to strike), a false sense of safety, or an actual area where the characters don’t need to have their guards up.
What is your most effective tool in your writer's toolbox for creating a strong sense of setting in your work?
Bobby Nash: The setting you create has to feel real, not just to the reader, but to me as the writer. I need to be able to imagine walking down the streets of that location, recognize the smells, the colors, the things that make that place unique. If I believe it’s real, that translates into the story.
Herika Raymer: Using the senses, but trying not to be too descriptive. I do not want to be a writer who uses two pages to explain what one thing looks like or tastes like. However, a reader experiencing their surroundings through the senses of the character can definitely be instrumental to setting the scene.
Bill Craig: The places where I set a lot of the action are real places where I have been. I try to make descriptions of places as vivid as I can in order to make readers feel as if they are visiting the island. For Key West, the sights and sounds are well known by many people, so it is easy to incorporate them, from wild chickens running all over town to iguanas coming out of the trees to swim in hotel swimming pools. Island music is everywhere as there is some sort of musician playing nearly 24 hours a day, giving a flavor from salsa to calypso, to Jimmy Buffet.
Gordon Dymowski: Details, details, details. It's amazing how some writers will point to obvious landmarks (like the Empire State Building) as if to say "We're in New York". Writing places that are out-of-the-way or suggesting a deeper history can do a lot for setting place, tone, and mood.
For example, when I write about Chicago, most of my action tends to take place on the city's south side. Part of it is that there's a historic tension between the North Side and South Side (due to both class and racial factors that are too lengthy to go into here), but part of it is...I know Sears Tower exists (and nobody calls it Willis Tower, just like nobody calls where the White Sox play Guaranteed Rate Park -- it's Sox Park or, if you're older, Comiskey Park). Anything that suggests that the setting has a history improves your ability to tell a story.
Elizabeth Donald: Live your life. I know that’s not the craft response, and certainly addressing metaphor and descriptive passages and details are all very important, but the reader can tell if you’re making up a setting from what you’ve seen in a movie or TV show rather than real-life experience. I learned to shoot guns because I was writing a lot of shoot-em-ups and it was blindingly apparent I’d never shot a gun in my life. I wrote an early novel in New York City that was fairly terrible, as I had never been to New York and I didn’t realize a lot of aspects you only realize once you’ve walked around on its streets.
If you want to create a place, first visit it or something similar. Pay attention. Take notes. Engage all five senses and experience a place if you want to recreate it in fiction. And then send in the zombies. It livens everything up.
The result was highly satisfying for me as a writer and (based on feedback) for the readers and paid back the extra research and effort needed.
Ef Deal: I like to focus on texture and sensory details like scent and taste. I also will describe a general layout as it affects the plot or action. For example, an opening of a second chapter describes the history of the chateau only to highlight the engineering genius of my heroine in bringing it up to date (1843), since those changes will play a part in the action later in the book.
Anna Grace Carpenter: I focus on those visceral details. The chill and misery of a rainy setting, the exhaustion and thirst of a desert setting. If the characters have injuries I focus on how the environment affects those wounds.
HC Playa: Invoking the senses. I do admit that this is something I feel is a work-in-progress skill. I joke that a reader might accurately guess without knowing me that my sense of smell is not very good. My characters tend not to smell much unless it's really strong and generally ick 😂. Yay allergies.
Robert Waters: Internal dialogue is important to me. But it's something you have to balance and not have it dominate the story. I've seen stories with whole paragraphs of internal dialogue, to the point of annoyance. IMO, not a good way to go. What I often do is have the character thinking / brooding / contemplating over something as part of the main narrative, and then, he/she will say a few words to him or herself to cap off the thought. That to me is a better way to handle internal dialogue.
Selah Janel: It depends on word count and what’s going on in the story. I love sensory details, because they help build a world and immerse readers, as well as giving characters so much to work with externally and internally. Sometimes, though, showing their own thoughts about a place is enough with less emphasis on external description. It really depends on what the goal is for the scene.
Bobby Nash: It all goes to set the stage. I like to have the narrator let us know not only details about the place but how they connect to the POV character in that chapter. I can drop details about Sommersville, and they work, but when I tie those details to Tom Myers’ life, they take on greater meaning.
Bill Craig: Sensory details are hooks to put the reader into the story and setting.
Anna Grace Carpenter: I only write 1st or close 3rd person. So the voice is always immediate and tied to the centralized character. (Even in third, everything is very close to the character who is the focus of the chapter. So those details are personal.)
Elizabeth Donald: I struggle with interiority in my writing, and it’s something I’ve been focusing on in my craft. Internal monologue comes more from character than setting, in my humble opinion, but both of these help develop a rich narrative that draws your reader into that total immersion for which we strive when we’re writing. Those sensory details go much further in terms of setting, as far as I’m concerned: when you’re standing in an open-air market in San Antonio, hearing mariachi music, smelling the street corn and tamales, watching the brightly-colored flags flutter against the blue sky, feeling an overly-warm breeze on your face… that puts you in a place, at a time, and you have established a place.
HC Playa: I avoid omniscient telling in my writing. As a reader, nothing makes me skip ahead quicker than a setting info dump from an invisible omniscient narrator. If I skip it and don't enjoy it, I don't write it. While I do occasionally use internal dialogue, I rely mostly on the character's POV to relate setting. It gives the reader a more immersive experience.
Gordon Dymowski: Sometimes the way to "dot the I" when crafting a setting is ensuring that every sense is involved. For example, my high school years were spent commuting through Chicago's Maxell Street market. I could discuss how I took the Number 8 Halsted bus, but the reader would be more intrigued by describing the storefronts along the street (with metal covers for the windows), the vendors hawking wares on the sidewalk (including hubcaps), and the strong odor of grilled onions and Polish sausage wafting through the air.
I've just painted a picture for you of that experience. The Market has since moved (and the street is now covered by amenities for college students), but that sense memory still lingers.As far as internal monologue/omniscient narrator, it depends on the type of story. Leaving out details can be critical in setting the scene (just read Poe's short stories), and having the "innocent bystander" narrate can drive insight into actions and behaviors (paging Dr. Watson). All of these are tools that any writer can and should use.
What have you read or written that absolutely didn't work in regard to making the setting feel real or important to the work? Why didn't it work?
Bill Craig: Longmire did a great job in character and setting. The only book I have read that failed in this respect is a book about a pulp character by a "Name" mystery writer. Sadly, it was so poorly written that I could not finish it and returned it. It ignored the history of the character and turned him into a secondary character rather than being the titular hero.
Elizabeth Donald: I will be generous and pick on TV, because they make a lot of money and won’t care. I always had myself a huge giggle at Smallville, as the teens of Smallville High would go swimming in the lovely alpine lakes shrouded with evergreens in… Kansas. Seriously, folks, at least try to hide that you’re shooting in Vancouver. Shows like Supernatural were equally ridiculous about this - claiming to be in St. Louis and an establishing shot of the Arch really doesn’t qualify as establishing a setting. At least when Doctor Who lands on Earth, he’s honest enough to admit he mostly toodles around London because budget.
How can we apply this to the written word? Know the territory. If you can’t physically visit a place, use your Google-fu and explore. Try to find someone who lives there or has visited there and interview them. I did this when I set a Blackfire adventure in the Philippines, and before I even ventured close to that one, I interviewed a friend of a friend who grew up there. I see it as no different than interviewing experts in advance of writing something technically different, like asking an arson investigator how you can most efficiently kill someone with fire and get away with it. (Just be sure they know you’re a writer; it’s far less likely to result in a search warrant for your apartment.)
Murky Master: Setting is only the combined sensory input going into a character's mind. The details that are important to the character are important to the story, so they will rise to the top.
A missionary about to face Elder gods in the Vietnamese jungle would see the following
"The dark of the night gave every biting insect an echo. The vines strangled like tentacles, their origins in the pitch black of the tree forks, like they were dropping out of the unknowable night..."
But, an adventuring doctor rushing to get medicine through that same jungle would see this"Every branch, every vine clawed and tugged at Dr. Nguyen, grasped and clawed at his sweat-soaked pant legs. Even the air dragged on him as he swam through the humidity, every leaping stride through wet, leaves feeling like a backhand. Like the one that mother would deal him if that girl drowned in her own pneumatic lungs).
Bobby Nash: Sure. Probably. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head and wouldn’t want to throw another writer under the bus. As a writer, if the author isn’t giving me those details, my brain fills them in, which could hurt the scene the author is trying to convey. If I don’t connect to the location, it becomes a generic location in my imagination.
Anna Grace Carpenter: I can't say I have written anything that was disconnected from setting. I write a lot of suspension of disbelief stuff, but setting is rarely a part of that. But, I did stop reading "The Lies of Locke Lamora" after a particular scene that was particularly brutal but also ignored some general physics.
Herika Raymer: The most glaring example that comes to mind was reading a sample chapter in Amazon from a highly recommended book (though not so much later on once more facts were discovered about the author). Her description of the scene was fair, setting the tone of tension and the fear of being chased. However, when it came time for the main character to act -- that is when it did not work. She had her character running on a broken ankle. Yes, broken. Readers can suspend belief for some things, but unless the author establishes right away that the main character is in some way supernatural, I have yet to meet someone who could run on a broken ankle with no problem. It was not the only problem with the story, but it was the first of many.
HC Playa: I can't think of any specific examples off the top of my head, but plenty of romance-type stories and contemporary fiction really have no connection to the setting. You could pick up the entire story, plop it in another city and it wouldn't matter.
Davide Mana: There is a notorious thriller novel, published a few years back by an Italian writer, and set in London. It was so successful Amazon did an English translation - that was pretty popular with the American public and got the British readers rabid (we talk a few dozens one-star reviews).
The author did not do any research, and what she produced was a story in which the London police carried guns, in which Scotland Yard is closed for business on weekends (!!), and the big set piece is a car chase and shootout on the streets of London (but the geography is all wrong). The plot was OK, but all the setting details that should have propped it up were wrong, and a lot of people noticed. It was an absolute failure on the worldbuilding side, caused by an obvious lack of research.
Also, sometimes researching the worldbuilding changes the direction of your story: while writing my first novel (historical adventure), I spent a weekend working with my brother (who studied Chinese), browsing Chinese-language websites in search of the actual location of the Italian consulate in Shanghai in 1936. I could have played it fast and loose, but the time spent on research revealed the consulate was across the street from the British police barracks - which changed the whole dynamic of the action in the first third of my story. I had to do a lot of rewrite, but it was well worth the effort.
Gordon Dymowski: As part of my review duties for I Hear of Sherlock, I read one pastiche which read more like a cliche screenplay than an actual Holmes work. (I'm not going to name it here). By the end, it was more concerned with being clever than setting a great mood or driving strong characters. Let's end on a positive note: some great examples of authors who use setting well are Robert B. Parker's early Spenser novels, Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski novels, and Jim Thompson's novels (which, yes, are unsettling but that's half the reason why I enjoy them).
John L. Taylor: Best example, again from an in-progress book of mine is introducing main characters who can travel in dreams by cornering their target in a dream of an abandoned decaying mansion meeting them at a chessboard with a game in progress. Both characters are damaged people, past their prime, but still intelligent and elegant in their ways, and ruthless hunters of their quarry. The visuals are symbolic of that.