Monday, May 30, 2011

Getting the Setting Right

By Michelle Gwynn Jones

Regardless of the genre of a story, all writers must decide on a setting where it will unfold. Picking a setting is too important to leave to a random dart tossed at a map. In order to be believable, the setting must make sense for the characters and for the story itself. The writer must consider several things in order to choose the setting.

Physical Location: Where on the globe, or in the universe, the story will take place influences who you can write about. If you want your main character to be the Chief of Surgery, on the Board of Directors for the symphony and drive a vintage Jaguar then you need to place your story in a city, not some remote section of the rain forest in South America.

Timing: Setting also refers to the time frame of a story. Although you may write a tale of little green people coming to earth in 400 BC and interacting with the natives, if you want your reader to believe that they were welcomed with open arms and lived happily side by side, the story might be better set after the industrial revolution.

Climate: Often as writers we use weather to indicate the passage of time, “She woke to the sound of rain on the tin roof.” Then later we will say, “The sun warmed her back as she worked in the garden.” But if the climate itself is a necessary element it needs to make sense. If the story is about main characters recovering from the loss of their home due to a hurricane, the story should take place on the coast as opposed to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As a writer picking the right location for my series of Rachel Shorte Mysteries was a difficult decision. At first I thought a large city would be the best choice, someplace familiar to me. I love New York, grew up there, but it seemed too big for my character. Paris, which to me is New York in French, would be fun but my use of the language can only be described as abuse. Then I thought Miami, lively and colorful. I could drive down for research and Mojitos, but being a tourist I didn’t think I could capture the true feel of its energy. Other cities came to mind, I rejected each for one reason or another.

Finally, I decided on the fictional town of New Grace, a suburb of Columbia, South Carolina. Although it is a combination of a few real towns that surround that city, it has its own attributes. I declared it “The Rhododendron Capital of the World.” Of course, first I made sure no other place held that honor. The main roads through town are all named after trees, such as Oak Boulevard and Maple Street. It has the added benefit of being right outside the state capital so my character can take advantage of The Arts by going to museums and the ballet. I like the freedom that creating the environment gives me. In fact, I like New Grace so much that I have chosen to use it as the locations for almost everything I write, whether or not it is a Rachel Shorte Mystery.


tosh said...


You're offering great points to consider and the setting is clearly an important component. While my story is based in the south, I went Faulkner-style with a fictitious city because the name, and its surrounding counties are so southern. It's seems so awkward to place these characters in what they are presently called for the time period in which I'm writing. I guess i explore every creative possibility for coming up with something that sounds good and believable.

I'm one of your SheWrites friends and wanted to make my comments here. You seem to be really going at it and offering the sound advice to getting the work done is very much appreciated.
Tosh Fomby

Catherine Stine said...

New Grace is a nice name and it sounds southern. I love building up the setting.

Kris said...

Great post, and very true. The right setting can sometimes intrigue me into reading a book regardless of the plot (but the plot can't appear totally boring either haha). Both of my novels seem to have set themselves, thus forcing me to integrate into places where never thought I'd go! Cheers!