Friday, July 5, 2013


In honor of the Fourth of July, I want to write a quick post about setting.  This country is full of wonderful, amazing places that are waiting to become the backgrounds for a great story, but the word “background” can be misleading.

Currently, I’m writing about Cape May, New Jersey, but I mentioned that already.  This place is an ocean-side resort town, with ghost tours, ice cream parlors, dolphin-watching tours, teahouses, and lots of Victorian houses.  Something about this place screams to be written about.  I love the potential in this town, and I hope to create a place and a fictional story that has half as much as I love about this place.

Other people write about Indianapolis and Chicago and California and lots of other spots in this country and in this world--I can’t say that I’ve had the desire to write about these places yet, but I may someday.  The tricky part is to make the setting something alive and real.  So much of this country is awesome, and if you can write about it and make it real, then the setting makes everything about your writing more vivid.  The setting becomes another living, breathing character in your story.  Instead of the background of the story, the setting becomes a part of the story.

Mark Twain's Mississippi River has become an adventurous charm for people all over the world because of his writings.  Edgar Allen Poe's concept of the early American East Coast has tempered all of our memories with dark visions of the creepy.  John Steinbeck solidified the sadness of the Depression in a way many people couldn't have verbalized before or since.  Eudora Welty wrote beautifully about the American south.  Even now, we have writers like Donald Miller writing about Portland, Oregon, and Haven Kimmel writing about Indiana.  

Funny thing is, we know this country and love it, mostly.  But when we share someone else's wonderful and insightful perspective on a corner of our world--like Haven Kimmel's stories about New Castle, Indiana--the setting helps to make our world and our country a little more alive, too.  Our world makes more sense when the setting is effective, and the settings help us to share our backgrounds and perspectives with lots of others.


  1. Character, Plot, and Time are shapeless without the dimension of Setting.

  2. Setting is so important and yet, as you know Heather, I have a tendency to not go deep enough with the detail of the setting. I get so wrapped up in the other aspects of the novel that I tend to leave the setting in the dust. Shame on me until you slap me around a bit and point out what I have not done properly. Humor can better, darkness can be darker, with a better setting, a more defined setting, something I fall short of.

  3. As Heather said, setting (and description) are so crucial to the success of any fiction! And yet too often they are a missing element. Many writers fall into the trap of viewing setting as the nineteenth century static approach of Dickens or Austin, descriptions that in the days of no tv or glossy Nat Geo, served a unique purpose, when folks loved to luxuriate in such description since they weren't in a hurry to get back to check the latest tweets. We still want to avoid static descriptions, but too often I hear writers say they've minimized the setting so their story can be universal and applicable anywhere. Unfortunately, it's setting that brings our fiction to life, not the other way around. John Gardner calls detail the lifeblood of fiction, and Sena Naslund teaches that setting and description evoke the reader's senses and bring the reader into the story. A great exercise I first heard from Barb Shoup of the Indiana Writers Center is to take five different colored highlighters and go through your work to mark each instance of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. And yes, this means printing it out and sitting down with paper and things shaped like old fashioned pens! Most of us will be amazed at how much further we can go in bringing our fiction to life by evoking the readers' senses through great setting and description.