Tag Archives: setting

Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It

29 Jun

by Susan Dennard



This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.


Money, Honey

19 Jan

Understanding how money works is important in everything from historical novels to fantasy and sci-fi. It forms an important part of the internal logic of a world and mentions of money that don’t seem to fit the world can jar the reader. While you might not have to work out the relative prices of everything, it helps to know what’s cheap and what’s expensive and how much money makes a person rich or poor. Then it’s possible to make consistent references to things like the prices of goods and services.

In the pre and early industrial era, labor was cheap while goods were not. Goods had to be hand made and luxuries were shipped around the world in a time consuming and dangerous process, then heavily taxed. This made things like cloth expensive. In the Georgian period a servant’s uniform could cost as much as their annual salary, and a silk handkerchief could buy a week’s worth of food. That’s one of the reasons why you can’t just convert old prices into modern numbers, the value systems are different.

In modern times mechanization has made production quick and cheap. Quicker and safer methods of transportation have made it possible to outsource manufacturing to poorer regions, keeping prices down even as wages rise. In industrialized nations, labor is expensive, especially specialized labor, while in developing nations it is still generally inexpensive. Decreases in population can make labor more valuable as well. After the Black Death spread through Europe, serfs were able to gain increasing freedom because their labor became more valuable.

Land values work in similar ways. In a feudal system where the economy is mainly dependent on agriculture and local produce, land in the main source of income. But in an industrial society it can be a major burden with upkeep and taxes and without peasant labor. So, if you’re writing anything that’s not contemporary, it’s important to keep in mind the fact that money should work differently.

There’s also more to money than the paper and coins we tend to think of first when we hear the word. Various types of money include:

-Valuable Metals: often made into standardized coins, they could include gold, silver, copper, and bronze. People would often cut up coins to get smaller denominations, so a piece of eight was actually one eighth of a Spanish dollar coin. (Two bits was two pieces or a quarter, the phrase “shave and a haircut—two bits” is a reference to this.)

-Other Valuable Objects: Often shells, like cowries, which were used at various times worldwide. Wampum belts were belts of shell beads used as currency and also to seal treaties and commemorate events among Native American tribes on the eastern seaboard.

-Paper: Typically resisted at first as it lacks intrinsic value. Some forms of paper currency include promissory notes from banks promising to pay actual money on request. These evolved into modern banknotes, or paper money.

-Electronic: most money currently exists only in computers and records, not physically, and can be wired from place to place or transferred by use of cards or transfer numbers.

Have you given much thought to what your characters buy and how they buy it?


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently querying. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter.

Writing Where You Know

17 Nov

By Sammy Bina


I’m walking down the street. On my left is an over-priced apartment building, large red flags with white W’s hanging from multiple balconies. There’s a valet podium outside that numerous people run into on a daily basis (myself included), and a guy dressed up like a concierge who probably hates his job more than anything. There’s also a Walgreens, the main student center, and a building whose steps are littered with cigarette butts and broken glass. On my right is a large cement block building with a weird statue outside and oddly shaped lights that you’d probably never see anywhere else. Also, construction. Lots of it. The street is full of cars, driven by people who should’ve never been given a driver’s license, and bikers who refuse to acknowledge pedestrians. Which isn’t a big deal, because the pedestrians think they’re invincible and don’t acknowledge the bikers. Or cars. And then there’s me, a single, solitary body, lost in the midst of a large crowd of people with backpacks and over-sized purses, rushing to cross Park Street before the automated voice stops saying, “The walk sign is now on to cross Park.”

Sound familiar?

Don’t worry if it doesn’t! More than likely, it won’t. To a non-native, the above paragraph would be nothing more than a description of some random place in some random city. But if you live in downtown Madison, Wisconsin you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll know exactly which apartment complex I’m talking about, that the cement block building is the art museum, and you definitely know how awful the construction is.

In other words, what I’ve written above is an accurate representation of the city I live in. If you’ve been there, you can’t dispute what I’ve just said.

Which, coincidentally, is today’s lesson! In other words, write not only what you know, but where you know.

As writers, one of the most important aspects of a novel is its setting. You have to have one; it’s not negotiable. It doesn’t matter if it’s set on the moon, in New York City, or under the ocean. You just can’t have a story without a setting. Or, rather, you can’t have a good story without a setting.

But what happens when you want to write a story that takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, but you’ve never been there? Sure, you could make up some stuff; that would be the easy way out. The problem with using actual locations, and not a made-up town of your own choosing, is that people actually live there. And, chances are, if your book is published and you’ve completely reinvented that city, readers native to the area are going to notice. And then your credibility goes poof!

So how do you go about solving this dilemma? Easy! Research. And the very best kind, too.

Here are some helpful ways to gather information on your intended real-life location:

1. Google. This one’s pretty obvious. If we stick with the Madison theme, there are plenty of useful sites that pop up, including a Wikipedia page, the city’s actual homepage, the university’s website, and numerous others. Read through them and take notes on anything that may be pertinent to your story. If your main character goes to college, make sure you spend a good amount of time on the college’s website. Look at the interactive campus maps, and find out where things are located. If they work at the Starbucks on State Street, know where it is in relation to other places, and what’s nearby. They may seem like stupid, unimportant details, but it’s better to know as much as you can about an area before you start writing. For example, I’ve got a map of Washington D.C. that I’m using for my current WIP. Even though I’ve lived there, the visual representation has gotten me out of quite a few sticky situations so far. So even if you’re writing about your own city, it’s still helpful to do your research.

2. Google street view. I think this is the Greatest Thing Ever. Not only can I figure out where I’m driving ahead of time, and what landmarks to look for, I can pretty much tour an entire city from the comfort of my own home. I don’t need to drive there, fly there, or hitchhike. Every detail I could want about the outside appearance of a city is at my fingertips. I use it every time I’m writing about a place I don’t know, and it offers some assurance that I’m getting things right. No local of Richmond, Virginia is going to yell at me for not being accurate. I definitely suggest using this when writing about a location you’ve never visited.

3. Ask around. The internet’s pretty great, but so are people. And, lucky for you, people use the internet! If you’re part of a writing community (either online or off), chat room, message board, critique group, reading group, etc., you always have other people to bounce ideas off of. And hopefully someone you know will have been to the place you want to write about and can offer some guidance. Or point you in the right direction. You never know what kind of information your friends are hiding!

4. Maps. This goes hand-in-hand with Google street view, but I want to reiterate the importance of maps. Knowing where things are in relation to other things is always beneficial, and can make that chase scene in your murder mystery either really exciting, or incredibly lengthy. Google Earth is another useful tool you may want to look into.

This may all seem like common sense, but I urge you to take it into consideration, regardless. In the course of my internship, I’ve read numerous stories set in places I’ve lived or visited, and are completely misrepresented because the author clearly just looked at a map, picked a random city, and ran with it. Sure, most people have probably never been to Sharon, Wisconsin, but I have, and people do live there. They’ll know if you screwed things up. So take your time, do your research, and I can guarantee your story will be better for it.


Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior majoring in Creative Writing. Currently an intern with the Elaine P. English literary agency, she is querying her adult dystopian romance, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, and revising DON’T MAKE A SCENE, a YA novel she wrote back in high school. You can find her on twitter, or check out her blog.

Breaking Down a Scene

14 Oct

The National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts’ YoungArts Program (www.youngarts.org) is currently accepting applications from American high school seniors for next year’s program, but the deadline is October 15. Check it out if you’re eligible!


I’m a visual learner and lately, I’ve been thinking about how that affects how I plan out and write projects. We’ve talked about outlining a couple times on the blog so far: who uses it, how they do it, and what works for each of us. One thing I do, which might seem a bit odd, is think of difficult scenes in terms of comic panels.

I’ve always read comics (I’m currently reading at least ten web comics and have a decent graphic novel collection). That’s super nerdy, I know, but it helps me when it comes to figuring out how to write scenes where I have a lot going on. You might think a webcomic is such a different form of media that there isn’t much a novelist can learn from them, but you can always learn something new from different forms of storytelling. Thinking of your narrative in terms of comic panels can help you visualize the setting and blocking for the characters in a scene. It forces you to think of where everything is in relation to everything else, and what’s important. You can’t include everything so you have to find the major actions to focus on. It’s like mental storyboarding.

This page from The Meek is a great example: http://www.meekcomic.com/2010/10/07/3-09/

It starts with a noise on the other side of the room, focuses in on the source, gives us the character’s reaction, and then throws in a surprise (the other character who’s been out of sight for a while). Thinking of the scene in snippets like this makes you think about how the characters move through space and helps keep track of them. You don’t want them running all over the place, tripping over each other and occasionally pulling some kind of unintentional quantum trick and appearing in two places at once. That would be okay if you were writing about The Flash, not Clumsy Sidekick A.

In order to help me figure out the set up of action scenes (where I do this the most), I ask myself things like: Where’s everyone who is important? What are they doing? Is there any way they might interfere with the main action? Do I want them out of sight and out of mind? Since I’ve been doing this I’ve stopped loosing my secondary characters.

The other major area where this has helped, has been in deciding what parts of the setting to describe. Pictures can accomplish this much faster than descriptions, but most artists don’t want to sit and draw every single minute detail of the background. They choose what to draw, and everything serves a purpose. You don’t want to bog the reader down with pages of dense description so, like the artist, you have to decide what is most salient to the mood and the plot and what can convey the most information about the setting.

I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but give it a shot. Trying breaking a tough scene down into panels, understanding what is most important to get across to the reader, and then putting it all back together with prose. I’d love to know if anyone else writes this way, or if you all just think I’m crazy!


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently querying. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter.

Culture Building

15 Jun

Fantasy writers often talk about how world building is a crucial step and must be well done for a story to be believable. I think that culture building is equally if not more important. Everyone lives in a culture (there is no such thing as ‘natural Man’) and your culture affects every aspect of your life. If you don’t build a realistic culture people are going to notice; it might not be glaring but there will still be a subtle sense that something is off.

I’m going to go over a few areas of culture that are important to consider when you’re building.


Language is almost insidious. Feminists know about language, as do gender studies people, so of course the mainstream writes it off (F.Y.I. our culture hates feminists). However, it is more than thinking about phrases like ‘man and wife,’ it has to do with concepts of space and time, numbers and personhood. Some languages have no words for numbers above two or three. You have one, two, many, and people in cultures with languages like this don’t differentiate between say twenty and thirty of something. They’re both many. Try to imagine an economy in a society that doesn’t bother counting above three. Even what colors you recognize depends on your culture and the words in your language. Read 1984 and be afraid, be very afraid.

Spatial Relationships

The Mixtec in Mesoamerica buried their dead under the floor of the main room in their house. If they moved they opened up the floor and took the bones with them. What does that use of space tell you about their culture?

Space is something we notice when we enter unfamiliar places. If we think that doors are in the wrong places or people use the other side of the street it can make us uncomfortable. Consider what the layout of buildings, towns and cities can tell you. A grid layout of streets implies central control and city planning while winding, narrow streets are evidence of more organic growth over time. The layout of a house can show gender roles in the segregation of workspaces or just the segregation of women to a separate area from men and visitors. Public and private areas of a house contrast what a family wishes others to see and what they want to say about themselves with how they interact on their own.

Buildings can display wealth and power. A palace is meant to impress everyone who views it and your rank in society determines which areas you are able to view. Temples, cathedrals, and important government buildings can make the viewer feel small and insignificant. Your use of space textures your world and positions your characters. It also allows readers to orient themselves or it disorients them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If you’re writing about people living in grand houses, research/visit some. Space can be used to control or convey subtle information and making your characters aware of it can add depth to their interactions with the people and world around them. And when I say space I mean buildings, yards, gardens, fences, roads, gates, walls, and the areas they enclose.

Social Structure

Bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states are the four broad categories of social structure used to classify most societies. As they increase in complexity they decrease in equality so that you go from the egalitarian structure of a band where decisions are consensus based to a state ruled by a small elite class. There are all kinds of variations within each category, so anthropologists really hate these four even if we can’t stop using them. Rank in society is either earned or inherited; as you move up in complexity you also increase the likelihood that rank is inherited. Elites like to keep their power to themselves and their kin whereas more egalitarian societies put emphasis on achievement. With them you get to be in charge because you’re the best organizer, or warrior, or hunter.

So far I’ve written primarily about state level societies. They’re literate, they have governments, economic classes, specialized labor, standard weights and measures, and armies. If you’re writing fantasy, you’re probably dealing with state level societies. Evil dark lord with tons of minions? It’s a state. A kingdom with happy peasants? It’s a state. A peaceful village surrounded by fairies and gumdrops and fields of unicorns? Well that depends. It could be a tribe or chiefdom instead of a state depending on what other characteristics you have. If the village lacks an overarching government and you don’t have a separate artisan class or much inequality it’s probably a tribe. If it’s part of a network of villages, there is pronounced inequality, and you have tribute going to the person in charge of the network, it’s looking more like a chiefdom.


I love kinship, especially fictive kinship. Fictive kinship is when you call your parents’ best friends aunt and uncle but it can get far more complicated. It’s probably best to stick to the basics for now. Kinship tends to be patrilineal or matrilineal, you belong to your father’s family or your mother’s family though in some cases you can get bilineal descent in which a person is a member of the mother’s line and the father’s line. Western cultures are patrilineal; you get your father’s name as your family name and you marry into your husbands family and take his name. In some cultures this is reversed and a man will marry into his wife’s family.

Who you can marry and what counts as incest is based on your kinship system. Yeah, I’m talking about cousin-lovin.’ Today Americans look down on first cousin marriages whereas they used to be common and desirable among the upper classes. Some societies favor first cousin marriage but only with certain cousins. Their definition of incest includes the cousins who would be within your line of descent. In a matrilineal system cousins on your mom’s side would be off limits but the ones on your dad’s side would be a great choice.

A lot of kinship comes out in your words for family members. In Chinese there are different words for your father’s mother and your mother’s mother. They also distinguish between your father’s older brothers and younger brothers. Confucian teaching put a huge emphasis on respect for elders and familial relationships, so it’s no surprise to see this level of distinction in kin names.

Gender (which has its own article), food, medicine, and religious practices are all major elements too and I could just go on and on. But the thought of having to think of them all can be daunting,  so it’s good to remember that you can make a major change in say one area and end up with a society vastly different from our own.

A quick example of great culture building? Terry Pratchett’s dwarves! Dwarf culture feels organic and has depth in Pratchett’s books even though they are comedies that parody our world. Pratchett takes the simple but crucial step of reversing the cultural meanings of light and dark: to enter the light is to be blinded and ignorant, to be endarkened is to see clearly. And they only have one gender! All dwarves are male! Yes, they have two sexes, that’s how they reproduce, but they only have one gender in the first few books.

Go on and try your own for fun, or share ideas below!


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time revising before continuing querying and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

Costuming Your Characters

10 May

What are your characters wearing?

Do you know? Is it important? I think it can be. Even if you don’t include long descriptions of each character’s outfit (which you shouldn’t because no one wants to read that), you should still include bits of information. Jane Austen mentions muslin in Northanger Abbey; she does not indulge in a treatise on the spring fashions of 1804. If we didn’t know what people wore during the early 19th century, we wouldn’t get an idea of it just from reading, but those mentions of muslin still give texture to the story and make Henry Tilney awesome. People’s clothes say a lot about them, so whatever the setting, whether it’s historical, modern, fantasy or sci-fi, you can use clothing to help set the mood and flesh out the world your characters inhabit.

Just like the color choices on movie costumes are used to say a lot about the characters, the colors your characters wear can drop hints about personality. I’m not talking about a leather bustier for your villain’s hot and evil secretary; I’m talking earth tones for chill people or bright colors during dramatic events. I have one character who’s emotionally distant. She wears mostly light blues and white but at the climax she wears red.

Fabric and accessories can hint at class or wealth. A Coach purse says upper-middle class and affluent, but not old money. The latest toys from Apple say something similar with a techie edge. A duct taped wallet shows someone who’s not willing to spend money on a new one. Silk and satin dresses are far more expensive than polyester blends or cotton. Think about all the props you see in movies and TV shows. It takes more time to write about objects but it can be worth it for what they say about your characters and the setting.

You can also hint at the weather or reinforce what’s already been said about it. Are people sweating through their t-shirts? That makes more of an impact than someone saying “It’s hot out.” During the winter they could reach for light jackets or wrap up in heavy fur coats. Which one they go for tells us more about the temperature than just plain ‘cold.’

The better you can picture the elements of your story, the better you can describe them and get that image across to your readers. I have trouble picturing things without reference, so I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out what everyone in PRISCILLA THE EVIL wears. It gave me an excuse to look a lots of pretty pictures, especially since Priscilla goes all Art Nouveau when she can. The dress is the wrong color but the picture feels right.


I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the prince she meets is dressed like Valentino from The Son of the Shiek.

The desert peoples are inspired by paintings of the late 19th century Ottoman Empire.

In short, know what your characters wear. The Kyoto Costume Institute has a drool inducing book I will probably eventually treat myself to, but even for those not quite up to buying books on historic costume, there are the wonderful wilds of the internet. So, here’s a few links I’ve found handy:

-The Art Renewal Center, Lord Frederick Leighton, http://www.artrenewal.com/pages/artist.php?artistid=14

-18th Century Blog (pictures of period clothing and fashion plates): http://18thcenturyblog.com/

-Movie stills from period dramas: http://www.costumersguide.com/costume_research.shtml http://www.freewebs.com/heileen/graceelliot.htm

-Wikipedia also has articles on fashion changes over different periods of time. Here’s the one I’ve looked at the most: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1750–1795_in_fashion

It’s pretty easy to find information on Western European clothing from the Roman Empire up through the modern period but there are tons of different clothing traditions throughout the world that are beautiful and wonderful sources of inspiration.

-some traditional Russian clothing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sofi01/3929375465/ and http://www.costumes.org/HISTORY/100pages/1903BALL.HTM

-The West African Grand Boubou: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boubou_(clothing)

and Kaftan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrapper_(clothing)

-Historic Japanese outfits: http://fibers.destinyslobster.com/Japanese/Clothes/japoutfits.htm

and Kimono http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimono

-Aztec clothing: http://history.missouristate.edu/jchuchiak/HST%20350–Theme%203–Daily_life_of_the_aztecs.htm

So, go have some fun, look at some pretty pictures, and play dress up with your characters.


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then plans on spending her time querying agents and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

The Awesomeness of Finding a Setting Through Google

1 Mar

by Biljana Likic


Ah, setting. The place where all the magic happens. The city, village, or town where all your characters live out their fate. Setting is something that every fiction writer wants to establish from the very beginning. It’s important to start out with a clear image in mind of where you want your story to be taking place. If you can describe well, either briefly or at length, where everything is happening, it can help set the mood, the colour scheme, and the general attitude people will have whenever they think of the place.

The problem is, if you’re writing something set in a place you’ve never visited, it can be hard to visualize or imagine without pictures. And sure pictures are great, but panoramic walkthroughs are better.

So today, I’m giving you guys a tip that one of my English teachers gave me, so simple and obvious that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before: Google Maps.

It’s being continuously established that Google rocks at everything, so really it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise, (especially with Google Earth,) when I recommend Google Maps as a good writing resource. And here’s why: Google Maps has a Satellite View feature. In a lot of the more popular cities, especially in Europe and North America, you can go into a Street View, which can walk you through the city with awesome and clear images.

Here’s how you can do it.

Let’s say I’m writing a book set in a fictional town in Medieval Italy, an architecture that I don’t know much about. I hardly have anything come to mind, except for what pictures I’ve seen of Medieval France, which isn’t the same. Say also that a courtyard with a clock tower is pivotal to my plot. First, I searched for a medieval town that’s been fairly well preserved. I came up with Siena, a couple hours away from Rome. Luckily, since many medieval towns have courtyards and clock towers, it wasn’t a big deal to find.

Then I went to Google Maps and searched for Siena, Italy. I switched the view, in the top right corner of the map, to Satellite.

Satellite View of Siena, Italy

Then, I clicked on the little orange man in the top left corner of the map, and dropped him down onto the blue highlighted streets. (Because the world is huge, you can’t drop the man down into every street.)

Satellite View of Siena, Italy

And then, voilà!

I’m suddenly in Siena, Italy, with a panoramic view of what’s going on. There’s a courtyard, a clock tower, and it’s Medieval. I can click on arrows to go down the streets, click and drag the mouse to turn in a circle, and double click to zoom in. I also have a box in the bottom right that tells me where I am, and if I click and drag my orange man, I can go somewhere else in the city. Now all I have to do is erase the modern stuff from my minds-eye picture and imagine the action.

Awesome, no? Next time you need to write about walking down a street in New York and you’ve never been there, just pull up Google Maps and do it virtually. Then nobody will be able to say that what you’ve described sounds wrong.

Unfortunately, because of how large the world is, and because Google is very North American/European-based, not every city or town has the Street View option. I’m thinking they’re working on it, so keep a look-out in the future.

And now for a fun poll! Of these five European cities, which would you like to visit most? Check them out on Google Maps. I made sure that Street View was available for them all of them.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s in her final year of high school, waiting and waiting to graduate, finish university, and finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here, and check out her work on her FictionPress account.

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 Fanfiction.net? 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 www.savannahjfoley.com