Do you know how to write convincing, compelling, and atmospheric locations into your novel? This can become quite a task especially when the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ adage comes into play. A well-written location can add depth to your story just like great characters can. If you have ever wondered how to go about crafting a great location, then continue reading and find all the tips and tricks you will need to accomplish this rewarding obstacle that many writers forget even to address. There is also a video on the creation of locations in writing to get you pumped up to learn more. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
It’s time to take a closer look at locations.
Locations are more than simply a stage for your puppets to walk around on – each location is an opportunity to:
In this section we’re going to explore the points above, and then look into methods and techniques we can use to make sure our locations have depth, realism and consistency.
Building mood and atmosphere with locations
The house could gleam brightly with a fresh coat of whitewash; have aging, peeling, lead-heavy paint; or give the impression of a gaping skull with sightless windows as eyes and a door forever gagging its silent scream. The sea could roll heavily, recline in reflective tranquillity or froth with lively white horses.
If you’re trying to build a sombre mood, make sure the park isn’t filled with cheery colours, just because that’s what was there the last time you went to the park. Make sure every word of description supports whatever mood or atmosphere you are trying to build in that scene.
Developing character with locations
How do your characters respond to their surroundings? This can give the reader a lot of information about your character without you having to say it outright.
For example, one character stuck overnight in a forest will build a bivouac, take a few slugs of whiskey and settle down with their heavy boots up on a stump. Another character might collapse into a weeping huddle, hysterically swatting at the creepy crawlies.
Of course it can be more subtle than that – as much as what they notice and don’t notice, what they touch, how they move around the area.
Foreshadowing plot points with locations
Every element of the locations you describe should be relevant, and have a justification for its inclusion.
For example, if you’re describing someone’s bedroom, not only should every item accurately reflect their character (see above), but it should also be relevant to this particular story. If they’re going to reach for that bag of marbles to knock out the intruder in chapter 9, it’ll be that much more satisfying if you mentioned them in passing in chapter 2.
The photographs in your character’s house and room can be an excellent opportunity to expose their character and history – but don’t get too heavy handed about it.
So how do we make our locations come to life?
How well you can gather detail about your locations depends a lot on your constraints – time and money.
Ideally, you’ll immerse yourself in each setting – including in each relevant time of day and season. However, this may not be practical (particularly if you’re writing a steam punk novel), in which case your imagination will have to pick up the slack.
If you can go to the actual places that you’re going to use as locations, then go – take copious amounts of photographs, and make reams of notes about everything you can see, smell, taste, feel, hear. Take samples of sand, pebbles, dried leaves – whatever you can. Try to look at the place through the eyes of your characters – what would they notice? What would they ignore?
However, if you can’t go there – you’ll need to research – and lucky you, you live in the era of the Internet. Get online and find pictures, even videos – of places and buildings that are as close as possible to what you envisioned. Study the pictures and you’re guaranteed to find more delicious detail in real life (or some artist’s imagination) than you could have come up with on your own.
A quick exercise to prove this if you’re so inclined:
Take ten minutes now and write a description of a sweet shop, without doing any research online – no cheating! You know, one of those old ones where all the sweets are in jars. Go on, go right ahead and do that.
Done? Now go and spent ten minutes searching for images of these old style sweet shops. Keep the pictures somewhere handy. Now, constantly referring to the pictures, spend another ten minutes describing the sweetshop.
Draw maps and plans
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to have floor plans detailing each of the places your characters visit.
You should know exactly which rooms are adjoining, where the doors and windows are, where they lead and what can be seen through them and what furniture is where. This really anchors your characters, rather than giving the impression they’re drifting around in space.
Having this information will add realistic detail to your story as you will see what in the environment the character can interact with, where they bump into each other and things, how they enter and leave.
List the senses
It’s time to get analytic about the abstract. Prosaic though it may seem, go through each of your locations and make a list for all of the senses.
What can you (or better, your point of view character) see?
What can you smell?
What can you taste?
What can you feel?
What can you hear?
Just make a list. You probably won’t use everything on the list. You may use hardly any of it. But when you’re writing your scene, you’ll have this box of colours, ready to dip into without having to break your flow.
You’re reading through the first draft of your story. You have an interesting protagonist, an engaging plot, and a terrific opening to hook your readers. You turn to page two, and it hits you: your scene takes place in “a room with white walls,” or “a grassy field,” or another of the cookie-cutter settings that can make an editor toss the story into the rejection pile.
Setting is one of the trickier elements of fiction. How much time should you spend describing the crenellations and gargoyles atop the castle wall, or the old-oil smell of the neighbor’s garage? Too much description and the reader could lose track of the plot line. Too little, and your story takes place in a vacuum.
Readers are unlikely to buy into a story if they don’t believe in the world where it takes place. It’s not always easy to describe unique, engaging settings, especially in a first draft. What follows are some tips to help you in the process.
In college, my greatest fear was that I might disappear in the bowels of the university library like many a freshman before me. The library was a labyrinth with confusing colored tape trails on the floor. The wise freshman brought a three-day supply of food in case he got lost, as well as breadcrumbs with which to leave a trail.
Others, like myself, simply avoided the library. Instead, I wrote about settings I knew and invented details for the ones I didn’t.
After a few dozen rejections, I wound up in the hospital with diabetes. I stayed there for three days, and when I got out, I returned to my computer to work on a story I had started a few months before — a story which happened to be set in a hospital.
This story had earned a number of rejections, and as I reread, I began to understand why. My made-up hospital was simply wrong. Beds and curtains and bustling nurses do not a hospital make. I added details that had stood out when I was a patient and used them to spice up the story. I talked about the over-moist pineapple cake I got at dinner and the cramped space around my bed where visitors barely had room to sit down. I described the IV tube that snaked around the rails of the bed and the smell of urine that wafted through the room every time my cathetered roommate opened the bathroom door. By the time I finished, that hospital was real. I printed it out, mailed it off, and voila — it was rejected by an editor who didn’t like vampire stories.
It did sell to the next editor, however, becoming my second professional sale. Of course, life isn’t always cooperative enough to provide real-world research for every story. Sure, I got lucky this time (if you could call it luck), but what about the next story?
For real-world settings, the Internet is one of the easiest places to do a bit of quick and dirty research. A search for “Paris, France,” for example, summons up a number of more-or-less official sites that provide tourist information, maps, and history, all of which can add depth to your story. Not only that, but a search for the words “Paris trip” and “journal” calls up a number of personal journals describing school-sponsored trips and vacations. Between these two, you can find a good balance of information. Online journals are unreliable as a source of objective information, but they can add flavor.
Another option is to contact people directly. Most states, countries, and regions are happy to send travel and recreation information to potential tourists, often at no charge. If you know a person who has been to the location in question, so much the better! Many people are more than willing to talk you through their photo album if you identify yourself as a writer.
For more exotic settings, the library is a good place to start. Try to find a university library, if possible. Once there, immediately find a university librarian to help you find what you need. Librarians, as I eventually learned, are far more helpful than breadcrumbs.
Remember, you’re not required to become the absolute authority. We’re writing stories, not doctorate-level dissertations. In most cases, we don’t want to spend too much time on the setting, since this can eventually distract a reader from the story. I’ve found it helpful to focus on two things: details and differences.
One approach to setting would be to describe everything from the color of the ceiling tiles in the restaurant to the clothes on the customers to every item on the menu behind the counter. Go on long enough, and any reader will know everything about the restaurant, including the exact color of the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, the average reader will have thrown the book across the room after page three and moved on to the latest Stephen King bestseller.
There’s no room to talk about everything, especially if you’re writing a short story. Instead, take a few moments and make a mental list of details about the last bar you visited. Think of the smells, the sounds, the decorations, the customers.
Rather than following the “kitchen sink” approach, pick out a few details that exemplify the setting.
There’s a local bar where one spot of carpet is a brighter green than the rest, marking the spot where the manager used spray paint to hide a vomit stain. That one detail not only captures the atmosphere of the place, it also gives us a bit of insight into the manager.
One famous and oft-quoted example is Robert Heinlein’s line, “The door irised open.” Heinlein found a single detail that established the entire feel of his futuristic environment.
Usually, it takes more than one detail. Try to seek out details that engage at least two or three of the reader’s senses. Visual details alone are less engaging than details that describe sight, texture, and sound.
In general, readers do about ninety-five percent of the work when it comes to description. If you provide those key details, the reader will do the rest.
Think of your local post office. What three details truly capture the feel of the place? That can be a bit tricky, since so many post offices tend to share a lot of the same details. A wall of PO boxes establishes the scene, but we could be in any one of a thousand post offices.
What makes your setting different? What detail makes this particular post office distinct from every other post office in the world?
I’m sitting in my cubicle at work as I work on this article. I don’t need to describe everything to establish a sense of setting. It would be a waste of time for me to talk about the gray partitions or the oversized appointment calendar on the wall. Almost every cubicle in America shares similar features.
I need to find a way to make this place interesting. How does my cubicle stand out from the rest? Maybe it’s the Mexican radio station playing on my supervisor’s computer in the next cubicle. The array of Lego Star Wars models scattered around my work station is another possibility, one that gives a bit of insight into me as well. Or it could be the tiny black gnats who colonized the plants by the fax machine and like to crawl across the computer screens, looking like rogue pixels.
Think about difference in terms of your story. What makes your spaceship/castle/dark alley/bookstore/portable bathroom different? Choose the details that carry the most punch, the ones that make your setting stand out. Irising doors do establish setting, but these days, it’s not enough. Lots of spaceships have irising doors. Instead, describe the fact that your space explorers are constantly tripping over rabbits scurrying through the halls of the ship, a result of defective DNA freezers back when it used to be a colony ship.
Be creative, but be careful as well. Make your details too unique or silly, and you’ve made an implicit promise to the reader that these details will be a relevant piece of the story. If you go with the space rabbits, your readers may legitimately expect the rabbits to come up later in the story. The details need to match the kind of story you write.
Esther Friesner wrote a series of comic fantasy novels in which she mentions various hamster-related beasts. The reader never encounters the evil super-hamsters, but because the books are comedies, and because these details aren’t overused, they work to establish a world gone silly. Mention a rifle hanging on the wall while writing a murder mystery, on the other hand, and you had better make sure somebody gets shot.
Putting it All Together
What happens when setting gets glossed over in the writing process? If a writer isn’t aware of setting, if we aren’t consciously looking for details to help the reader know this place, we fall back on stereotypes and clichés. This is both forgivable and normal, right up to the point where we submit the story. After all, we’re trying to keep track of characters and plot and voice and the rest of it; setting can easily slip through the cracks.
Discovering the setting can be one of the joys of revision. It’s a way to add depth and creativity to a story. In other cases, when setting is more central to the plot, world-building might be the first step in the writing process. Like most other aspects of writing, there is no one right way to create setting.
When we skimp on setting, we tend to fall back on things we’ve read before. One of my first science fiction stories took place on a ship which, upon looking back, seems remarkably familiar. I can almost hear the characters proclaiming their need to “seek out new life and new civilizations.”
Read through your story and ask, “Have I ever read a story that takes place in this setting, or is this world truly unique?”
If it’s the former, it’s probably time to do a bit of research.
It’s not that hard, and you almost never have to check in to the hospital.
Find Out More…
The Art of Description: Eight Tips to Help You Bring Your Settings to Life, by Anne Marble
Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life, by Moira Allen
Map Your Settings, by Victoria Grossack
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