Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Inspires Your Setting?

On morning walk, March 2014
"For most novelists the art of writing might be defined as the use to which we put our homesickness. So powerful is the instinct to memorialize in prose--one's region, one's family, one's past--that many writers, shorn of such subjects, would be rendered paralyzed and mute." --Joyce Carol Oates

The sky was magnificent on my walk the other day (glad I had the camera with me!)--and for some reason it seemed to draw me into my surroundings in a way I hadn't experienced before. Thoughts began to flow. Suggestions whispered. Possibilities for connecting dots in my story leaped forth. What fun. I didn't know "they" lived over there! Who would have guessed "that" character's house was just around the curve? And the pine grove between the two? Turns out, it's begging to be included, too.

Of course, the actual setting in my story will be fictionalized, but my, how my neighborhood is helping me "see" it. I can pretend I'm walking in my character's shoes as she lives, struggles, fights for that which is most important to her--all while being drawn into the drama and misfortunes of the times in which she lives (it is historical fiction, after all).

 "If you're lucky," writes Elizabeth George in Write Away, "the place in which you live is a place that resonates with you. If that's the case and if you can remain alive to and aware of the details that make that place unique, you should certainly consider using it for a setting because you'll more than likely be able to render it and not merely report it."

This works for the writer in me that immerses herself in an era of history. But what about the writer who builds her own world, fictionalizes a setting far different than her own reality?

It's all in the details. As Donald Maass says: "The great novelists of the past and the breakout novelists of today employ many approaches to setting, but all have one element in common: detail. A setting cannot live unless it is observed in its pieces and particulars."

Alex, at Write World, contrasts the advantages of real locations vs. fictional settings in his article, "Location, Location, Location: The Fundamentals of Choosing a Setting." In it he says, "There are two sides to setting: logistics and soul. If a character gets on a specific bus route, it's probably a good idea to research if such a bus actually exists, but this is only one side of writing about setting. The part that is infinitely harder is understanding the spirit of location, what makes it tick, what motivates its citizens, and how this culture matches your story. Whether your place is real or made-up, this will be your greatest challenge in writing setting."

"Real location" writers and "world builders" have more in common than not.

Additional tips on setting come from Moira Allen's "Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life" (at where she suggest we reveal setting through motion...a character's level of experience...the mood of your character...the senses.

And what about the writer's own setting--the place in which we actually write? Take a look at Joy Lanzendorfer's Writer's Digest article, "5 Writing Lessons Inspired by Famous Writers." Ms. Lanzendorfer garnered inspiration by visiting the homes of such writers as Jack London, William Faulkner, and Emily Dickenson. A sample:

"In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in a hotel in Monterey, CA, after traveling from Scotland. He didn't write anything of note while there, but the scenery, Spanish influences, and a local legend about buried coins later went into his most famous book, Treasure Island."

What has inspired your settings? What locations have influenced you? Do you draw from real places or build your own worlds? And have you written out of homesickness as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, or drawn from the deep well of imaginary places?


  1. The only two places I've lived for any length of time are Ohio and Pennsylvania. Unless my story takes place in an imagined world, the characters always live in the midwest. It's a good excuse to do a little more traveling, don't you think?

  2. Peggy, travel is a good excuse for a writer's needs, for sure :-) Who would have thought a Scot would write about Spanish influences except from his travels? Here's to more places to explore!

  3. My favorite books are the ones where setting becomes like a character because it's so alive. Lately my settings have formed from places I visited as a kid, mostly the area where my mom and dad grew up.

  4. I really loved this post--the quote at the top captured my attention as most or all of my writing comes from past experiences. I tend to use the setting in PA where I lived most of my life. Occasionally I will write about Florida as that's the second place I've lived the longest. But my strongest memories are during my early married years.

  5. Great picture. Love the clouds. I write with the most authenticity when writing about my own locale. It was a big problem for me when I wrote a saga set in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and I didn't know what the air felt like, or smelled like.

  6. Barbara--enjoyed reading about what's inspiring your writing at the moment. Those places special to your childhood and your parents' early lives can make for vivid settings. For me it's childhood memories of the old farmhouse where my great-grandmother lived. I can still see it in my mind's eye...

    Terri, settings do come from those places familiar to us, for sure--but your comment about memories of the early days of marriage touches on how emotions also tie in strongly to a place. Maybe that's how we can make setting more real in our writing--when we draw on sensory details and mood influences from those memories? You've given me something more to think about :-)

    Cathy, glad you liked the picture, thanks :-) And I can see how you might draw from your own surroundings for your writing--from what I've seen it is a beautiful place with great history and story potential! It's interesting you were able to write a story set in Saint Domingue--sounds intriguing. How did you get a "feel" for the place?

  7. Well, I did waaaaaaay too much research. I read a couple hundred nonfiction books from the WSU library. Just one of my writerly insanities that I've needed to curb--that of over-researching something. You live and learn, right?