Last night was the second night of Settings for my Twitter chat, #smutchat. We don’t just talk about smut, we talk about lots of things about the craft, and where you set your story was one of the topics.
How do you know where your story is going to take place?
Generally, this is a no-brainer. If you’re writing fantasy, more than likely your characters are going to move around a world that resembles medieval times. A story with a Prince cursed with magical powers who needed to fend off an evil sorceress wouldn’t have the same feel if it were set in present-day New York City. Along those lines, if you are writing a time-traveling saga, the historical periods you choose for them to travel to will play a huge role in where your story will take place. A contemporary romance wouldn’t be contemporary if you set your story in 1700 England. You get the idea.
But when we talk about settings, we need to dig deeper than just the time and the place. The smaller details can have a huge impact on your story.
When I chose to write Summer Secrets, the first thing that popped into my head were couples on a vacation at a fishing resort. I didn’t think beyond that setting other than each couple stayed in their own cabin, and each couple would have their own story. But as I began writing, I noticed how this setting both positively and negatively affected my characters.
For every positive, there was a negative. They were on vacation, which meant they were relaxed, in a good mood. But as the story went on, the characters also got bored, and they rubbed on each other’s nerves. This created conflict that I didn’t foresee, but it was great planning on my part all the same.
In this vein I also didn’t realize exactly what cutting them off from other people would do. They were forced to talk to each other, whether they were tired of each other or not. As the title suggests, each couple kept secrets from each other and forcing my characters to talk because they didn’t have anyone else to talk to created some very tense dialogue, and of course, the unveiling of those secrets.
The setting caused some issues for people vacationing from the city: my characters got lost while hiking, bit by bugs, almost drowned, were hurt from falling in terrain they weren’t accustomed to. Putting my characters into another environment would have worked too, so long as they were strangers to that environment so it would have caused outside conflict that they had to handle along with the internal conflict of being pushed together.
Choosing a lake resort gave my characters plenty of room for themselves where they thought things through, assumed things, came to erroneous conclusions. The seclusion also made my characters feel even more alone with their problems and secrets. On the flip side, they also found peace being away from city life.
When you think of your setting, look at it as a character in its own right. And when you create your setting be it world building for a fantasy, or choosing a city for your romance novel, think of some of these things:
- How will it positively affect your characters? Your character moves to the city of her dreams. Your male MC moves next door to the girl he’s always wanted to marry. Your character wins a trip on a cruise, or your knight on a quest finds a prosperous kingdom.
- How will your setting negatively affect your characters? Your MC’s mother moves next door and makes your MC’s life a living hell. Your MC’s boss hits on her at work, so now she views her workplace as a nightmare she must go to every day until she finds another job. The mansion your MC inherits from her uncle is haunted.
- How will the setting make your character feel? An empty lake could exaggerate a character’s feeling of loneliness. A hospital setting could remind your character of an accident from his childhood and he feels fear when visiting his sick sister. A crowded room could make your character feel anxious and claustrophobic–maybe she was abused as a child and locked in a closet.
- Incorporate all the senses when writing about your setting. Sight is the most common because we’re writers and we describe what our characters see. But what do they smell when they enter a diner? Greasy fish that turns her stomach? Visiting her mother’s home, does the smell of apple pie bring her back to her high school days after school? Does your MC love her cat, but hates when her cat licks her because the cat’s tongue is too rough for her sunburnt skin? Does the music playing from a car passing by remind her of a date gone wrong?
- Setting can help you weave backstory into your character’s lives and novel. A man must go back to his hometown and gradually we learn why he left in the first place.
For me, the setting will pop into my head along with the characters and some of the plot. When I went to California, it was my first time in LAX and I was curious if I was going to see any celebrities (I didn’t), but being in an airport I had never been in before made a story pop into my head, characters, plot and all. I’m champing at the bit to write it.
In this day of technology with Google and Google maps, it’s easier than ever to set a story where you’ve never been. You can go anywhere the world; the setting for your next story is at your fingertips.
How do you decide on your setting?
More tips on choosing your setting: