Where are you? Seriously- right now, where are you? Have you really thought about that?
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my boys’ dark bedroom, typing while they fall asleep (because the little devils won’t do it without supervision). The room is near blackness except for this bright screen blasting my face. My hands are brightly illuminated, pale against the black keyboard, and the shiny spines of scores of picture books lining my kids’ wall glint in the blue light. The boys are quiet by now, probably asleep, and the fish tank is gurgling away- the tinkle of water from the waterfall filter, the whirrr of the air pump, the occasional blip of water as that crazy pleco tries to jump clear of the water like a miniature whale. (Seriously, why does he do that?) The room is cool, a little damp from the rain outside, and has that musty, dusty smell of little boys who don’t clean their room unless I’m dangling Minecraft and a candy bar over their heads.
It is a tiny space, maybe eight by twelve feet, but it is the space I exist within. But setting is more than just a place. It’s also my era, my culture, my upbringing. It’s the government of my nation and the sounds my language makes and the endless minutia I take for granted. Without my setting, with all its many facets, I have no context. I am adrift.
As a real person, I can’t ever be really without a setting. I will always have a location, a time, a social environment. Yet, I often find myself (especially in short stories) writing characters who exist in a great Nothing- they are talking heads, having conversations and moving from Blank A to Blank B, which is to say, not really moving at all. Seriously, if there’s no starting point and no ending point, it’s really hard to convey movement.
So let’s just be blunt: setting is super mega important. Even if you try to make a story without one (although I’m not sure why you would), bits and pieces will find their way in, and your readers will either a) be frustrated and confused because they can’t figure out where the heck they are, or b) make something up and then be confused and frustrated with you when they’re wrong. Humans don’t exist without setting. Nothing exists without setting. So make sure your stories don’t either.
When I’m getting set to write a new novel (like, oh, saaaaay… next month?), one of the first things I do after deciding what the story is and who the main cast is, is to work out a setting. Like most other things in your first draft, it will evolve. But it’s important to lay some groundwork.
The elements of setting can be roughly divided into four (or more or less, depending on specificity) categories: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual. Every single element of a setting falls into one or more of these categories. Does your scene take place as night is falling? That’s chronological. Does it take place on a mountain? That’s a physical element. Also, if it’s raining, that’s another physical element, and if it’s been raining for weeks, that passage time is another chronological element. But if that rain is flooding everything in the valley and hoards of desperate refugees are roaring up the mountainside, then you’ve also got contextual and psychological elements in there as well.
Try to have at least one element from each category in every scene of your book. This gives your setting depth and vividness; any single element would make a very flat scene. And while your characters might not know the history of a particular street corner, they would certainly (barring specific disabilities) know what it looks like, smells, like, etc. Never skimp on the sensory details; these more than anything else will ground your readers right there with your characters in these lovely settings you’re writing.
When writing places that already exist, do your research! Don’t put the gas station on the wrong side of the street or make a winter in Brazil subzero (unless there’s magic at play!). You’ll get called out on it, ya lazy loser. Know what the world is like and let it sing its own truth.
Making a new world from scratch for your characters to live in? Here are a few things that I like to consider:
Where is it? Does your story take place in a particular neighborhood? In another country? On another planet? In a different universe entirely?
What are the resources and the geography of the place? What problems might this create for the people living there? What resources would it naturally supply? How do these things affect the cultures that grow up in these places?
When is it? What time of day is the scene? What season (weather) is the story? Is this the current day? A long long time ago? The distant future? Or does it exist on a different timescale altogether?
What is the history? What was this place like a decade ago? A century ago? What triumphs and disasters went into shaping the current situation? What about your character’s personal history? Do they see the baker’s shop on the corner and think about their first kiss? Or their first assassination? Just as history shapes nations, personal history shapes people.
What is the culture? What are the values of the people who live there (truth, or wealth, or safety, or having the prettiest pomsky possible)? (Easy conflict comes from any variances in these values between groups and individuals. Maybe your character doesn’t want to cheat to win the pomsky competition, but his family’s pressuring him.) Once you know what people there value the most, work out from there to build a culture. We could spend a whole blog post talking about creating cultures (and maybe we will some day!), but just for now, remember that cultures are organic things that evolve naturally from the values and the resources of a group of people.
Obviously, there is much much more to setting than we’re able to get to in one blog post, but hopefully this is enough to get you started! As further resources, the next few weeks I’ll post sample settings that I gathered over the summer. Until then, happy writing!