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Setting is Crucial to Your Story

by L.A. Murphy (originally posted on

One of the most important things to consider when writing anything is the setting. Where, when and why are the questions I always ask myself when I write anything. Is the setting realistic? Too obvious? Too vague? Is it present, past or future? Is it in a little time pocket all of it’s own? Most importantly, why? Why have I chosen the place and is it significant.

The best advice I can give when writing a place is to write what you know. It’s too easy to set your novel in New York, a city that we hear ever so much about. But think about it, have you ever been there? Have you lived there? Do you know it? If not, you probably shouldn’t be writing it. No one wants to read a novel set in New York where the only places featured are the Empire State, Times Square and The Statue of Liberty. We want gritty corners, hidden cafes, secluded alleys, and we want reality.

It’s important to take into account so many factors when writing a place and so it’s important to know what to include and how to include it. The further I get with my book, the more I realise how much research really goes into writing a novel. The below factors are ones I have found to be the most prevalent when writing my setting.

Locale: This really refers to the more intimate details of the setting. It can include countries, states, districts, neighbourhood, city, countryside, etc. When writing, you really have to consider the locale and how it will affect the narrative. In this area you can be more specific and give characters a home, maybe have some reoccurring scenery. It keeps the narrative grounded.

Time: Time is a broad spectrum to consider. What is the time of year? If your novel is set in summer, how does the weather and humidity feel? Now, it’s not necessary for every page to have some sort of weather description, but it is important to have these details included to humanise your characters and to give some realism to your writing. Time must flow neatly in a narrative and it has to be something you really think about before writing ten paragraphs that readers can’t quite keep up with time wise. For example, elapsed time must be accounted for and this can include flashbacks, long distance journeys, etc.

Social: What is the current state of the country or setting. This can include politics, etc.

Culture: How is your setting affected by its culture? It goes without saying you cant have a buxom, blonde and scantily clad protagonist walking around Iraq. This just isn’t realistic. But culture goes deeper than that, what are the roots of the people who live there. For example Boston is heavily influenced by its Irish heritage. How are you going to include this?

Landmarks: Every city has them. What do you know about them? How will they play out in your writing? It would be folly to include every single landmark, but you’d expect at least one or two important places to pop up over the course of the narrative.

Geography: Are you in a city? On a mountain? In a jungle? Each of these places and more have very specific eco-systems which you can’t just ease over and hope no one notices. How does it feel for your protagonist to be pushing themselves up a mountain during an adventure? It certainly won’t be easy, but how are you going to show this to your readers? Geography is also inclusive of weather patterns and wildlife, I think. You can’t set a book the middle of a Hong Kong summer and not include a monsoon or two, as monsoon’s and black rain are common occurrences in this city.

It seems like a lot to include, but if you write what you know then these considerations are not an issue. They will flow through you as you write and make your writing that much better. I noticed while editing that my own work is set completely wrong and therein lies the biggest issue with my own novel. I tried to be adventurous and write a place I’m not altogether sure of. Yes, adventure and risk are a huge part of the writing process but so is making your writing authentic and original.

What are your thoughts on setting? How do you approach any issues you face?

Guest post contributed by L.A. Murphy. L.A. is an aspiring novelist and avid reader. This writer uses the blog Penscriven to share personal favorite works.

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