Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Creating a Setting That Comes Alive for Your Reader

I've been thinking a lot about settings. The reason: we're planning a move to a different state. I've become an ultimate research buff in preparing for the change and I've learned some things along the way that I think might help with a manuscript.

Also been reading a great book by Jan Karon, her September release, Someplace Good with Somebody Safe. The town of Mitford has had millions of visitors annually, at least on the written page. In fact, she's revisited the town after a decade away. Her main character, a priest named Father Tim who marries his middle-aged neighbor, hates change and loves Orange Mamalade Cake.

What makes us love going to Mitford and what can help readers to fall in love with our settings? You can't always travel to your setting, but there are great things you can do to build authenticity.

1) Visual aids:

Karon has done her research on the fictional town she's created. She has done it so well that this town seems real. We can taste the Orange Marmalade Cake (it doesn't hurt that she includes the recipe so we really can enjoy it), we smell the budding lilacs, and can clearly envision Father Tim's cranky neighbor.

Each book includes a map of Mitford. She has thoughtfully considered all the details. Many times an author forgets an essential detail and that can confuse or frustrate the reader. The maps included in these books not only give an idea of the location of one place in regards to another, but also give a feel for the physical appearance of some of the buildings and parks without spoiling imagination.

Knowing the exact placement of your fictional town or city is essential. If you talk about the main character getting a haircut and then stopping for an ice cream soda, you'd better make sure you have your details right.

Karon has also included landscape in her maps. The reader is impressed with the fact that Mitford is a shady town with lots of trees, and sidewalks everywhere.

Jan has hired a wonderful illustrator for her novels. Maybe you don't have the means to do that, but you'll be amazed at what computer graphics can do for even the least artistic among us!

If you are interested in looking at some sample maps, check out this page: created by a librarian who works in the maps section of a research library. It includes maps from such notable children's classics as Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner. 

Make yourself as many visual helps as you can, even if they're just for you. Buy or print out state maps for your state, both topographic to help you get a feel of the lay of the land and political maps. Also, observe weather maps to find out what are the weather patterns in your city. What time of year does North Carolina get hurricanes? How many inches of snow does Buffalo, New York typically get in January? These little details will bring life to your novel. And don't forget to think about how the climate might affect your character's life. For instance, if your character lives in Buffalo, they might struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder because of the lack of vitamin D. If she lives in the midwest, her house probably has a root cellar for tornado preparation.

2) Go on a hunt:

Pretend you're moving to a new area (this isn't much of a stretch for me right now!).

What will you need? First, a job right?

Go to sites like monster.com, indeed.com, and gov.jobs to find out where your character might work. If he's a computer programmer maybe a seaside town with lots of touristy attractions is not where you'll find him. Perhaps it is where you'd find a seafood waitress or a travel agent. Find out what the typical salary is so you know how your character might live.

Next, you'll need housing or a rental. Does the type of housing you envision for your character fit into the city you've chosen?

For instance, if they live in the Southeastern United States they may not have a basement because of flooding, so make sure you don't have your character store her pantry down there. If they live in Manhattan, keep in mind that they will probably have a one bedroom apartment they share with someone else, unless they're wealthy. What does the housing market look like for your setting? Do most rent or sell?

3) Find the religious landscape of your area.

Does your town have two community churches or many in various denominations? Is it a bastion of Southern Baptists or Roman Catholics? Is going to church a cultural thing? Are the churches more traditional with hymns and organ music or contemporary with Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin worship songs? Maybe search out some of the mega churches in the area to give you a feel for some of what is present as well as googling small town churches. For our CBA characters church often plays a major part in their lives so it doesn't hurt to know what the spiritual landscape of your setting is like.

4) Don't forget about food.

Oh boy this is my favorite one to research. If your character has favorite foods, try to find a good recipe for them and just enjoy the sensory pleasure of it. Find out what ethnic foods are popular in the area you're choosing to write about (it may not be what you expect). And try restaurants in your area that serve similiar cuisines. Consider taking out cookbooks from the library from a particular region. Junior Leagues produce cookbooks in communities throughout the US and can often provide a great feel for what the average person in an area might be having for dinner. What are the food specialties of your area? Have you tried them?

One site that I love (and check every time I travel to a new area is roadfood). Roadfood's forums contain nearly every major area in the United States and feature specialties that the average person might eat. Perhaps your main character is upper class and will eat at 21 Club but in most cases meals out might consist of hamburgers or an all-you-can eat pancake breakfast. This site will give you a feel for the food of your favorite region. Pinterest will help too.

5) Look for tourist-y materials.

Don't forget to go to local websites and request brochures about the museums, fine arts, and other attractions. Look for Fodor's & Moon travel guides from your local library. There are also Food Lover's Guide to.... and An Explorer's Guide To... Maps, descriptions and small pictures will give you a better feel for what's available in the area you are considering.

So don't forget to hunt the internet, your library, local bookstores for information about the setting you are writing about. Google earth is a great resource that most already use and there are many other similiar sites. Getting the taste, feel, smell of an area is crucial to creating a believable setting your readers will love.

What's your favorite setting from literature and why?

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reviewing and writing for Library Journal and the blog Wonderfully Woven.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Those are great suggestions, Julia! I'm terrible at setting and this would really help me in getting the "picture" right. :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Julia! I always love how thorough you are when you share here. :)

I didn't know you were moving. Where to, if I may ask?

Let's see, my favorite setting.....I have many, but the one that comes to mind right now is northern Minnesota where Susan May Warren has set her Christensen family series. It's vivid in my mind. :)

H. R. Sinclair said...

Those are great tips. Setting is an import character so it's good to get the right feel for it.

Susanne Dietze said...

Fabulous post. It's given me some helpful tips to create a stronger setting. Thanks!

Julia M. Reffner said...


We're moving to Richmond, Virginia area. Susie May is one I thought about when writing this, she sure does have a great sense of setting to her novels that brings you there.


So true and its the character I can struggle the most with. Thanks for joining in today.


So glad you found help, settings can be challenging.

Laurie Tomlinson said...

Bookmarking this! It's fantastic!

Rachelle O'Neil said...

Thanks for such a great post, Julia! Setting is one of my weak points, so it's always good to hear tips on how to better that area of my writing. Ugh, favorite setting? I really don't know. I love Middle-Earth, from The Lord of the Rings, especially the Shire. But that's more from the movies than the books. I like seaside settings; they always seem to be described well, at least by the authors I've read, and there are so many fun details to work with: salty air, sandy boardwalks, sailboats, etc.

Beverley Baird said...

Love the Mitford series! Great informative post. This is waht I have been told to work on in my new novel - great timing!

Jessica Lynne Martin said...

Great concepts here; I'm actually reading the first Mitford book as we speak (and crafting the world for my new novel at the same time) — how fitting!