Friday, July 13, 2012

Making Your Settings Come to Life

I love reading about interesting settings and writing about interesting settings. Give me a fresh and unique setting, and I'm already halfway in love with the book. Give me a historical setting that draws me in, and I'm in love again. Give me something dark and creepy that makes me want to curl up next to the fire, and I'm ready for the suspense. I love settings!

Whether you love writing settings or not, they're often an integral part of your story. Even if they're in the background, employing certain steps and a little extra attention can give your settings a realistic quality and make them come to life for a reader.
Photo by Donald Lee Pardue

Historical sites and landmarks

You can use this tip whether your setting is fictional or real. Try adding certain landmarks or historical sites readers could relate to throughout the story. If it's a big city, try mentioning a specific bridge or building people would know about. For small towns, you can mention a larger city nearby to give a reader context, or mention a lake or river or something historical that happened nearby.


Again, fictional or real, this brings a story to life. Mentioning the weather in some scenes, and being accurate about the kinds of weather (snow, dry, humidity, etc.) will help readers feel more like your setting is real.

Street/Store names

Using real or made up names of streets or stores or lakes or rivers drops your reader right there in the setting. What's more real than a very specific place?

Give the place a tone

Help your readers understand the feel of the setting. Does it have a small-town atmosphere, or a laid-back atmosphere? Adding in certain elements, like the architecture of the buildings or the types of people walking around and what they're wearing or doing (like waving hello or just walking on by with the rest of a large crowd) will show the reader the kind of place you're writing about.

Photo by rkramer62
Don't forget the details!

Sometimes it only takes small things to help your reader feel like they're there in the story. Mention window boxes with a specific flower in house windows, or that flag in front of the library. Talk about that gazebo in the middle of the lake or the cobblestone streets your character is walking on. Something tangible and relatable for the reader.

Are you a fan of writing settings? What do you do to make your setting come alive?


Cindy is a Colorado native, living near the mountains with her husband and three beautiful daughters. She writes contemporary Christian romance, seeking to enrich lives with her stories of faith, love, and a touch of humor.

To learn more about Cindy, visit her at her personal blog,


Andrea Mack said...

I think it's important to give the reader a sense of the place where the events are happening. For me, details are very important. I like to try to include details that appeal to different senses, to make it seem more real.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I am terrible at setting and it is something I usually skimp on in the first draft. I'm more of a dialogue/action girl myself. :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

I'm with Sherrinda. I love dialogue -- talk it up, talk it up.
But I'm working on setting -- or even more, Storyworld.
One of the things I do is slow down and think about the setting before I start writing my scene or chapter. I think out what my POV character might see (& I also think about the other 4 senses that I could pull into the scene.)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Andrea, I agree. Giving the reader a sense of where the characters are living, breathing, and dealing with their conflict is important. And those details are a great addition!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Sherrinda, that's the fun part, right? The banter and back and forth moments between the characters. It makes sense that a lot of the setting description and such can be filled in on later drafts.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Beth, that's a great strategy. Different characters are going to see their world a different way. That's a good way to focus on setting, and really get into a deeper POV with your character.

Unknown said...

I love a setting that perfectly captures the mood of the scene. Although, I always have this fear of becoming cliche--especially with weather: rain when someone's sad, storm when they're mad, sun when they're happy.

Like others have said, I love dialogue. So a lot of times, I'll start out writing a full conversation with nothing else. That helps me figure out the mood of the scene...then I'll go back and add in the storyworld...location, five senses, details...that's just what works for me.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Melissa, I think that's a common strategy, writing bare bones or strictly with the plot, including action and dialogue with the first draft. It seems so much easier to write all those details afterwards, once you have a better feel for the scene and characters, doesn't it?

Joanne Sher said...

I totally need to get better about my setting descriptions - partly because, in my "default setting" I don't really notice much about them! So they don't work their way into my writing. I have to be VERY purposeful about noticing that kind of thing.

Great tips, Cindy. Thanks!

Lindsay Harrel said...

I like adding in bits of storyworld but might not do enough of it.

I definitely did the landmark thing, but one of my beta readers complained when I made up a fake church. She actually went to look it up and couldn't find it. But I think it's okay to use some real places and some made up in stories. It is fiction, after all!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Hi Joanne. I know there's always something each of us needs to be more purposeful about when we do our writing. It's nice that details about a setting can be layered in as edits are done :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Lindsay, I think that's interesting about the church. I guess it depends on the reader how fictionalized you want to make a town that already exists :) But, as you said, it's fiction! Some things can work anyway!

Ashley Clark said...

Love this post, Cindy! I think I'm going to go add some window boxes now. :D

Anonymous said...

I have been working on my first draft, and struggling with setting. Now that you mention it, I have hardly included weather in my writing. Like Melissa mentions above, is there any way to show the character's emotions through weather without becoming cliche? Thanks, Cindy!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Cute, Ashley! Gotta love those details :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Anon, it's great you're trying to include certain details in your writing and describing emotions through weather is a fun way. I suppose it might always feel cliche if you have a gigantic thunderstorm when a character is down or sunshine and birds chirping when your character is in a particularly good mood, but I think it can still feel fresh with a unique voice and style. Try using metaphors that aren't cliche and possibly brainstorm before the scene if you're going to correlate your characters emotions and the weather. Instead of describing the weather from a factual point of view, try looking at it from your character's point of view. Close your eyes and imagine what THEY would notice about the weather or the setting (and be specific!) and then incorporate.

Angie Dicken said...

I LOVE writing settings!! I could write pages and pages of just setting...actually my first attempt at novel writing was awful, because that is what I did!!
It is so important to ground the character in a setting, and also give the reader hope that one day, they may even get the chance to experience the setting for themselves...or that they wish they could if it's imaginary!
Great post, Cindy!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Oh, Angie, I love those thoughts! Yes, that's what makes settings so magical. If they're written well, the reader gets to BE there, really exist in that place, even if only for the time it takes to read a book :)

Kathy Bosman said...

I loved this post and all the comments because I've struggled so much with setting. Some books, the editors have had to ask me why I didn't even say where the book was set until the middle of the book! I think I'm too scared to get the reader bored with too much setting as when I read, I will even put a book down if there is too much setting. But, it definitely helps set the tone of the story and ground the story. I love the idea of seeing the setting through the POV of your characters because that is who the book is about. I also have a funny story about setting. My first adult novel (which was very beginner I have to admit) - I set in the town where I live and I made up a new shopping mall in a certain area. When I read through the novel a couple of months ago, I giggled so much - we now have a new mall in that exact same area! How crazy and kind of creepy is that?