The Importance of Setting

9 Dec

by Savannah J. Foley


Think of your favorite book. Think of the characters; what do you love about them? What do you see them doing?

More importantly, where are they?

Today I’d like to talk about the importance of Setting, and how it impacts both your writing life and your future readers.

Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about Harry Potter. I assume most of you out there are fans. What do you think has led to the prominence of Harry Potter fan fiction on Is it the characters? Is it the widespread popularity? I propose to you that what makes Harry Potter so popular is its setting.

If you’ve read one of the Harry Potter books, then you know what Hogwarts looks like. In your mind you know exactly where the Gryffindor common room is, what the doors to the dining hall look like, which direction Dumbledore’s office is facing, etc. You might not be able to draw a functional map of it, and your ideas of where everything is might not match J.K. Rowling’s ideas at all, but the point is that you have a very vivid mental picture of Harry Potter’s primary setting, and in your imaginings during History class or a work meeting you could follow all the characters up and down stairs, across courtyards, through fields, etc., making up new stories and events for them.

The Setting is the playground of the book. If you have a clear idea of your setting, and fully understand the different elements in it, then you could take your book in any direction you wanted. You might go off in several direction before you actually decide on one, all because it’s so easy to think up new scenarios for your characters.

In the Antebellum series, I have very clear, very vivid ideas about the homes and cities of my characters. It’s not hard at all to go there in my mind and hang out with my characters, watching them go about their daily lives. I could lead them into any situation I wanted, and I know exactly where they would stand and what objects would be around them. It’s like a computer game, but for your mind.

I feel very confidently that you can move about the rooms of your favorite books with the same amount of ease. I am also sure that you, like me, run into serious problems when you can’t envision exactly where your characters are.

The realization of the importance of setting came to me very recently as I was working on what I hope will become my newest novel. It involves time travel, and primarily five settings: two houses, an apartment, and two towns. My problem is that I have no idea what any of these places look like. It’s not a matter of research, it’s a matter of orienting myself to their world. What direction do these houses face? When you come through the front door, are you greeted with a staircase, a kitchen, or a reception area? What floor is the apartment on? Is it near a library, a supermarket, or the ghetto, or all three?

Until I figure out the world through my characters’ eyes, I cannot connect with them. I feel lost when I write them; it’s the same feeling as when you take your already-well-known characters and move them into a new setting. You’ll notice it with books sometimes; for just a scene the author will move their characters into a setting completely different than those we visit in the rest of the novel. If the author doesn’t have a clear idea of what that setting looks like, it comes across in their writing, and one of my senses goes dark. I can’t see what the characters are doing anymore. I can hear them, yes, and feel what they’re touching, but my sight is gone until they return to areas I’m more familiar with.

Even though I signed up for NaNoWriMo last month, as soon as I realized my setting predicament I stopped working on the story. I refuse to go back to my novel until I know exactly how to move about the rooms and worlds of my characters. Otherwise I’ll just be stuck in the same spot, flailing around in the dark, offering description and movement but no insight. I can’t make my plot develop if I don’t know what direction my characters are heading next.

Realizing the importance of setting explained for me why some earlier attempts at novels never went anywhere; I had one room, or one piece of scenery, cast out into the void like an island.

How do you pick a setting? Some stories you work on might not come with their settings magically imprinted into your head. Sometimes you might have to work at it, and in that case, I find it helpful to have something to base your setting off of. I recommend the following sources for finding settings:

1. Flickr (or other photo-storage sites). Flickr has this awesome feature when you search for photographs; you can specify your results by ‘most recent,’ ‘most relevant,’ or my favorite, ‘most interesting.’ I’ve found some gorgeous photos of scenes I wanted by doing a ‘most interesting’ search on Flickr.

How it worked for me: I got some really inspiring images for Go Look There involving butterflies that really captured the mood I was going for.

2. Icon Communities. You have to be on livejournal for this one. Livejournal has some awesome communities where people create and share icons. My favorite is gaffe; it shows beautiful, artistic, high-fashion icons, a lot of which remind me of my characters or specific scenes and give me something to start with in order to imagine a new world. Gaffe is often the spark that lights my setting fire (yeah, I totally went there). Icons and conceptual art are also good if you’re writing a story that doesn’t take place in modern times, or even on Earth.

How it worked for me: I based the North Hall building in Antebellum off of an icon I saw once. Icons were also very instrumental in designing some of my characters, like Laina, Charoleen, and Mercoush (I saw a conceptual picture of a black man meditating with a chain around his head and knew what Mercoush had to look like), and also helped pick the outfit style in the North Hall.

3. City Websites. Want to set your story in a city or part of the world you’ve never visited? Visit that city’s website to get a feel for their building style, any landmarks you should be aware of, etc.

How it worked for me: I researched various towns in upstate New York for help with my comedy novel Of Coffee and People.

4. Relevant movies/television. It sounds silly, but you can learn a lot about cities you’ve never been to by watching movies or television shows that were actually filmed there. This really only works for the big cities, though, unless you know of a movie whose small-town setting matches the feel you want for your book.

How it worked for me: I based a beach house and surrounding town in my potential new novel off of ones in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and various episodes of Sex and the City, and several spy/action movies set in Africa or the Middle East for the introduction to A Clear and Beautiful Lie. Minority Report also helped give me a basis for the technology level in ACABL.

Personally, I think settings are half the fun of writing; the stage upon which your characters get to act. Your setting can be anything you want it to be, in a way that real towns never can.

So good luck, happy writing, and may all your settings be complete.

-Savannah J. Foley


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is

19 Responses to “The Importance of Setting”

  1. Alexandra Shostak at 8:18 AM #

    I’ve never thought about setting so specifically, but as I was reading, I realized that you were completely right. I envision what everything looks like, and if I can’t envision it, I have a really hard time writing it. I can keep going without knowing exactly what my setting is, but it means there’s some heavy editing involved when I go back.

    I also love the advice to use flickr or livejournal, because I’ve used both–and deviantart. I love deviantart, too–I have an account specifically so I can just save every picture I find enchanting. But it’s interesting that you just mentioned livejournal, because I recently found an icon, and realized that it looks exactly how I’ve been picturing the mc for my wip. I’ve never been to gaffe before–but now I think I’m going to have to.

    Great article! I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Savannah J. Foley at 10:47 AM #

      Thanks, Alexandra! Yeah, it was kind of an epiphany moment when I realized why I’d had such trouble with all my stories lately.

      • Alexandra Shostak at 9:19 PM #

        At one point, I drew a map of my city–I needed to know where everything was in relationship to everything else, because a lot of it depends on being far away or close to certain scenes of disaster, or how fast they can get to and from those scenes. And two train stations feed into the city, so I had to figure out how that worked, too. It DEFINITELY helped me after I made that drawing. Only now I can’t find it… :-\

  2. Amanda Waldo at 8:40 AM #

    “The Setting is the playground of the book.” I love this quote! I never thought to go hunting for setting ideas before. I’ll have to try some of your techniques. Knowing me, I could probably spend hour upon hour looking at some of those sites.

    • svonnah at 9:24 AM #

      That’s the best part! 😉

  3. sara at 12:25 PM #

    Very accurate post! I searched for images (online and in magazines) that matched what I imagined – and then hung them around my desk so that I never had to worry about the way the setting appeared. (I do this for some characters as well and definitely for houses.)

    • svonnah at 9:25 AM #

      I did this too for one of my books… pasted all the magazine pictures to posterboard. It was VERY helpful for getting me in the mood.

  4. Rachel S at 5:16 PM #

    Like Alexandra, I knew gave much thought into setting. But then I realized that I sort of do, by looking up images of certain things in the story that I am having trouble describing. I sometimes need a visual to help me out. So I guess that is like researching the setting…

    Great article, Savannah! 🙂

    • svonnah at 7:59 AM #

      I know, when I thought of the importance of settings it was this big ‘duh’ moment. It’s not something I consciously thought of before this.

  5. Lynn Heitkamp at 7:37 PM #

    I like your ideas of where to look for ideas. I have a notebook that’s full of maps and photos/drawings/family trees of characters of my WIP, but I hadn’t thought of some of those locations before.

    I have a friend who writes contemporary romances that once had the whole subdivision where her novel was set laid out. She had even found house plans online for each of the important homes in the story. She really knew her setting!

    • svonnah at 9:27 AM #

      That sounds like what I need to do for my current book!

  6. Great post! I was just thinking this today as I wrote a scene in a diner. Even though I don’t describe the diner in full detail, I felt like I had to know what it looked like in full detail. I think if you do, then it will come across in the things the characters say, how they act, and in their general demeanor.

    Thank you also for such great suggestions for finding settings.

  7. Rowenna at 7:01 AM #

    So true! Because I write historical fiction, the setting seems almost doubly important–time ends up being as critical as place, and requiring as much or more research. And the research can be a touch dry–I’m writing about real places, so I do a lot of historical map studying (good thing that I love old maps!). Often the places are transplanted real places–for instance, the main setting in the last thing I finished was based heavily on a historical house I’m very familiar with. Because my stories have to happen when and where they do, I never gave a second thought to spending oodles of time on the details of setting–it’s intrinsic to the story. I never thought of some of the creative ideas you gave for researching setting, though! I love it!

    • svonnah at 9:27 AM #

      thanks for your comment!

    • junebugger at 6:23 PM #

      *sigh* This is why I don’t write historical fiction, but historical romance. It takes so much more effort to write a story that has to revolve around fact. With historical romance readers are more forgiving.

      But wow. You use maps? It sounds like great fun. It would be interesting if you, one day, followed the journey your characters made on the map.

  8. Cassandra at 10:06 AM #

    Oh settings . . . I’m bad at settings. Or at least when it comes to housing. I guess for me setting is more of a second draft kind of thing. All of my stories are very character-driven and right now they are walking around in a hazy place. (Of course, I think this is different when you make a new world. I do have an sci-fi/fantasy combo story in which I spend time world-building for that very reason!)

    My best setting-centered story is probably Love, Hate, and Ale-8. But that’s only because the setting is the college I go to–and the characters are centered on the setting–and because I am here like every single day, I know the college pretty flippin well.

    Anyways, I think every writer has different ways to bring the setting to their story. I know that when I start focusing on setting too much for the first draft, I don’t get anything written. My favorite way of procrastinating is actually to write ABOUT the story, instead of writing the story. For me, the biggest act of discipline when it writing my stories is to just sit down and write!!

    Which I should be doing now!


  9. junebugger at 6:20 PM #

    Great article! And I agree with you. Setting is sooo important. I’m mainly inspired by movies.

  10. Palantean Writer at 7:40 AM #

    I think you’ve got a great point. I’ve been writing a story of a self-contained academy with space for 12 students and an annexe for the teachers, and have been using a combination of my old middle school, the lodge I stayed in during my French holiday, a side-room I can half-imagine and an L-shaped upstairs area for the dorms, which doesn’t match my plan of the downstairs at all.

    The annexe is actually my friend’s farmer dad’s house; it had its own annexed house which looked a bit strange, but I think I can get away with that…

    I think you’ve actually talked me into sketching out the whole building now. I think I need to now.

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