Breaking the Silence with Setting

You may have noticed a suspicious silence of late on the Captain’s Blog, but while this page has sat still, there’s been momentous movement behind the scenes at Writership.

In the last six months, Leslie has been on lock-down editing some incredible works, we’ve welcomed a new host to the Writership Podcast, and we’ve developed a business plan that’s driving Writership forward with renewed clarity and passion.

Leslie will be here in January to tell you more about these developments. In the meantime, we want to get back in the habit of providing inspiration for wherever you are in your writing journey, so she has entrusted this introduction to a member of her growing team.

We know many of you will be in the depths of your NaNoWriMo project. (If you don't know what this strange combination of letters means, click here.) To help you reach that magical 1,667 words per day, we’re bringing you Leslie’s post (originally shared in early 2015) on making the most of your setting. We hope it will serve as fodder for building your word count and breathing life into your work-in-progress.

 

Make the Most of Your Setting

Breaking the Silence with Setting

As I mentioned in my “Green Screen” post, setting can be challenging for me. It’s easier to tell you what happened than where it happened and what aspects of the place contributed to the action—so I have to work hard at this. I recognize the paramount importance of weaving details of place and time into the story, and so I’ve been putting effort into mastering this skill.

Whether your story is realistic or not, the time it takes to create your setting mindfully is well spent. No matter how familiar you are personally with your story’s setting, it’s a good idea to spend some time scoping out the territory. Author Mary Buckham said in Writing Active Setting: Book 1 Characterization and Sensory Detail, “Setting is probably one of the most underused tools in a writer’s toolbox, but it doesn’t have to be.” Your setting’s elements can support or undermine the story you are trying to tell. You want to use them to your best advantage. I recommend you acquaint yourself with the many levels of your particular setting before you begin your first draft. I’ve collected several questions to help you do just that.

Place

Place comprises the physical location(s) in your story. We often think of place as cities or towns within states or provinces within nations. But there are deeper levels of inquiry.

  • Geographic Setting
    What is the geography, climate, and ecology of your location? Is your setting a taiga, savannah, or rainforest? Is it rural, suburban, or urban? Is this a place you’ve been to before and know well, or do you plan to do some research? Is the place another character in your story or mainly a backdrop? How do these elements affect your story and how you tell it?
     
  • Local Setting
    Within the larger, overall setting, individual scenes take place in specific buildings and rooms. Where do your characters live? Where do they work or go to school? Where else does your character go?
     
  • Social Environment
    Beyond the physical elements of place, exists the social environment. What are the history, politics, culture, and social structure of your place? Is it a democracy, a dictatorship, or something else entirely? Is there political conflict? Is it egalitarian or highly stratified? How do people earn money and feed themselves? What is the predominant religion or are there many?

To research a real place, your best bet is to visit and get a feel for the ground beneath your feet. If you can’t do that, you might use online maps, like Google Earth, and local property listings. Travel guides and memoirs of people who live in the area can provide helpful details. Also, check out the websites of the local municipality and the chamber of commerce.

Time

Your story can take place in a wide variety of times: the Bronze Age, the early modern period, the Victorian era. Where does your setting fit in history? If your story is not of our world, what time most closely reflects that of your story? As you decide on a time, consider how long you want your story to be and how much research you want to do. If you write historical fiction, for example, consider that much of your setting may be unfamiliar to the average reader and will require extra illumination. Every level of setting should be described with sufficient detail for the reader to understand and make sense of what’s happening.

Within a time period, you will probably need to get more specific. What year is it? What season? What month? This determines clothing worn, activities engaged in, and sometimes what transportation is available. Does your story take place over a long span of time? Or is it just a few days or hours? The many factors to consider include:

  • Technology
    How do people communicate over long distances? (e.g., Letter? Bird? Telegraph? Ansible?) What kind of transportation is available? Medical care? Weaponry?
     
  • Language
    Language and the manner of speaking evolve over time. Some words and jargon belong to specific time periods or places. English is a language that spans the globe, but people use different words, phrases, and spelling—even within the same country. Someone from New Hampshire is unlikely to say, y’all. Wicked can mean evil or immoral in some parts of the country; in others the word conveys excellence.
     
  • Social Environment
    The governmental structure and laws change with time. Manners, mores, customs, and rituals do as well. How do people in your time behave? You’ll find variation among people within a time, but an understanding of the ordinary way of doing things supports the story. Regency romances, for example, recount a wide range of activities of the upper classes with very specific codes of conduct and clothing for each setting—and Regency romance readers will know when you get it right.

To find out more about a time other than your own, you might read literature of the period; both fiction and nonfiction will help you get a feel for the way life was lived. In the year leading up to penning his novel, Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell read only books set in nineteenth century London. That may seem a bit extreme, but I appreciate the understanding he must have gained in the depth of his pursuit.

Try This

Grab your favorite writing tools and work through the questions posed throughout this post for your current work in progress. If you want to dig deeper, consider the ways in which your intended setting is different from the one in which you live. Then consider the ways it’s the same. How would that affect the social environment? What rules would be different? How would people behave differently?

Do you struggle with the setting in your stories? Do you have a special way of dreaming the place and time alive for your readers? Let us know in the comments below.

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