Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sense of Place-- Sheena

FUTURE GIANTS by Alisdair Miller
found at

Alright. Alright. Fine. I'll stop showing settings and start talking setting.

 Setting is nothing without the characters, but characters are also nothing without the setting.

Facebook: UrbanExplorationUS / Via

Setting is obviously an important part of any story. It can reflect the inner landscape of the characters. It can show status, wonder, magic, artistry, but most of all it gives the characters a place to live.

I'm not naturally good at setting, so these are the things I've had to learn through observation and study.

You ready?

1. Write what you know 

Use the places you know really well in your fiction. No one will notice that the floor plan of that spaceship story exactly matches the layout of your high school + the back kitchen of that job you worked one summer. Writing is a way to capture the moments, places, and people that you know and love. If there's a place you love, add details of it to your story. It's like adding pieces of your soul.

If you find yourself stumped, then you probably need to travel more. I think a lack of travel is directly responsible for my lack of skill at setting. But with the magic of the internet, finding setting inspiration is just one google away. Search historical.... Boom.
Stairway, Wolf Castle, Wales photo by aurelien
How can you not want to write a scene here on this staircase?

2. Make stuff up

If that is the way your creativity runs, this, I've been told, is really fun. Also it's kind of the job.

Start from the ceiling and work your way down. Focus on the way the light hits it. Create visual interest through words. Paint a picture with nouns and vowels, and who am I kidding? This is not the way my creative brain works. I can tell you how a character brain functions, how a system of magic works, but trying to design a building or a room, and I'm dead on the page.

 But every artist there ever was took inspiration from somewhere, so if you find yourself lacking creative setting inspiration, go look for some, and then add your own spin to it. That's what I do.

3. Design is in the details

But too many details and the reader gets bored. A good rule of thumb is mention the three details that set the mood of the scene.  Remember senses go beyond sight, and sprinkle in sounds, tastes, and smells. Be specific about one thing, and go general about everything else.

For example:

The only straight lines were the streaks of sunlight coming in from the window at the top of the stairs. Everything else, from the filigree ironwork railing along the side, the alcove above it, and those white marble steps, were curved and open like it was inviting you in for a cup of tea. The moment I saw those curved stairs I wanted to sit a few steps up and let that sunlight warm the pages of a musky book in my hand.

4. Set the scene with the attitude of the POV character. 

It's more interesting to know how a character feels about a room then the laundry list of details about a room.

For example:


 The curved marble staircase led up to a window.


The curved stairs were cold beneath my bare feet, each step echoing though the corridor. I put my course hand against the smooth carved railing, and I knew I did not fit here. Even the sunlight at the top was damning as it streaked pointing fingers at every moth chewed hole in my dress and pock mark in my cheek.

5. Steal like an artist, not like a thief. 

A thief steals from one source, and artist steals from many and calls it inspiration.

So keep your creative eyes out. Read a lot. Search for good setting inspiration through art, pictures, and google street view.

When I was writing FUNNY TRAGIC CRAZY MAGIC I had to write a scene I had set in Paris. Problem is, I've never been to Paris, but other people have, so I had to get the details right.

Answer #1. Buy a ticket to Paris.

Nope. Too poor.

Answer #2. Google Street View.

I spent a few hours on Google digitally walking up and down the streets of Paris, and the I wrote my feelings about the place, and how I thought Larissa would see it.

The thing is, if you write about feelings, then you are never wrong.

And that's how you get setting right.


p.s. a fun exercise for you. Find an image of a setting that feels inspiring, and then describe it in different characters POV. Sometimes the trick to learning something as fundamental as setting is to practice. If you can't find an image you like, try describing the room you are in as your characters would see it.


  1. What a beautiful staircase. Your examples are wonderfully written. I must admit that this is something I struggle with as well and need to practice strengthening my writing muscles. I'm going to take your advice and find a few inspiring pictures to hang up and write about.

  2. "The thing is, if you write about feelings, then you are never wrong."
    This. Yes. I hadn't thought of it that way before, so thank you for saying it!

    Your abandoned escalator/mall place made me remember how much I love photos of abandoned places. I always especially enjoy abandoned waterslide parks, like this:

    Chernobyl pictures are also especially creepy cool too:


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