I just finished reading my first Amelia Peabody book and I have been completely captivated by the world Elizabeth Peters created. Now, I only picked it up as research for a work-in-progress of mine, but from the first chapter, I was drawn into the setting of Cairo and the arid environment in which Egyptologists and archeologists saturated themselves to uncover ancient relics.
Elizabeth Peters’ book was thick with a world I’d never experienced, but through her story, I traveled to Egypt, felt the busy-ness of Cairo’s streets, and even delved into an ancient mystery.
How did she help me travel there? And how do we make that happen in our stories?
One of my favorite things in writing (besides developing characters! I LOVE creating characters!!) is helping my readers get a sense of place in the storyworld they’ve entered.
I could really write three separate posts on this issue, one on each of my points, but I’ll try to sum it up 😊
- Know your setting
- Take the Organic Approach
- Move the senses
Know Your SettingFirst things first, get to know your setting. Of course, this is for obvious reasons – if you don’t know your setting, how on earth are you going to describe it for others to experience?
A. Traveling to the places
B. Massive research
C. The Author’s own imagination
D. Taking stories from others and fictionalizing them/or incorporating them into yours
E. All of the above (or a mixture of a few)
E would be the usual answer 😉
It takes a blend of experiences, knowledge, and imagination to bring a setting to life in the best ways. But what do we need to know to impact the creation of our settings?
Oh goodness, I don’t have enough space here to go into all the possible information, but here are a few questions to ask while shaping your storyworld.
What does the place look like? (duh, right?)
What’s the mood of the place? How does it feel? – for example, in Lord of the Rings, Mordor has a very different “sense” and weather to it than the Shire. Even the weather sets a tone for the setting in those two places.
What sort of people live here? Is it a big mix of cultures? Agrarian? A city? The smells, sounds, even the accents are going to be different, depending on what you choose.
What would be the typical work done in this setting? A fishing village by the sea is going to have a different style, flavor, and feeling than a upscale, city street. A rural area is going to give off a different vibe than a suburb – not only in what we see, but in what people wear, the way they talk to each other, and even the pace of life.
What cultures and traditions might influence the setting and the people?
What is the history of this place? Has it been there a long time? Were there any significant historical events that took place there? Will these influence the setting of your story or the people within it?
How about the geography? Having an ocean nearby is going to create a different culture than being surrounded by mountains. In my book, My Heart Belongs in the Blue Ridge, the culture of the Appalachian people – isolated within their mountains with limited options for making a living – are naturally prone to developing and drinking alcohol because the nature of their environment sets them up for it. So then, how will this ‘culture’ impact my story?
The creation of a world comes from a big pot of possibilities, and each author attempts to evoke a reader’s imagination in different ways.
Take the Organic ApproachSecond (and as important as the first) - take an organic approach to revealing your setting.
It’s important to weave the setting into the action of the story, not use it as bookends to a page.
You do NOT have to tell everything you know about this setting in your book. In fact, please DON’T!! What you want to do is highlight the best parts of your setting to build a sense of place, but not bog down your readers with details. The best way to do this is weave the setting into the action of the story.
Master storyteller Jerry Jenkins gives these two examples:
London in the 1860s was a cold, damp, foggy city crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and pedestrians carefully dodging the droppings of steeds that pulled all manner of public conveyance. One such pedestrian was Lucy Knight, a beautiful, young, unattached woman in a hurry to get to Piccadilly Circus. An eligible bachelor had asked her to meet him there.
I get the sense of setting, don't you? It works, right?
But…Jenkins gives us an even BETTER way 😊
London’s West End, 1862
Lucy Knight mince-stepped around clumps of horse dung as she hurried toward Regent Street. Must not be late, she told herself. What would he think?
She carefully navigated the cobblestones as she crossed to hail a Hansom Cab – which she preferred for its low center of gravity and smooth turning. Lucy did not want to appear as if she’d been toseed about in a carriage, especially tonight.
“Not wearin’ a ring, I see,” the driver said as she boarded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nice lookin’ lady like yourself out alone after dark in the cold fog…”
“You needn’t worry about me, sir. I’m only going to the circus.”
“Picadilly, it is, Ma’am.”
Do we still get the same idea of the setting? Yes, but we ALSO have it incorporated in such a way that the story is moving forward AND we get a little character introduction along with a tinge of suspense for icing on the cake.
Now there is NOTHING wrong with beautiful prose and descriptions, but if they can mean something to the story and move it along, then that is how to bring your setting to life without it feeling like a list of details. And, if you’re going to give a longer, meaningful description, try to alternate it with some action or dialogue.
Move the SensesThirdly, don’t forget the five senses.
Here’s an example from my historical romance, My Heart Belongs in the Blue Ridge (a descriptive paragraph set within the center of a chapter). Also, the mountains are an integral part of the story.
The important thing about incorporating the senses is to keep it organic and relevant to the rest of the story.
Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes historical and contemporary romance novels with grace, humor, and culture clashes. She’s a Blue Ridge Mountain native and an anglophile who enjoys combining her two loves to create memorable stories of hope. You can connect with Pepper over at her group blog, The Writer’s Alley, her website, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter.
What are some books you’ve felt have shown setting well?
What places have you visited lately through books that you’ve never been to in real life?
Pepper has a copy of My Heart Belongs in the Blue Ridge for one commenter!