Writing Settings For A Novel That Engages The Reader

Writing the settings for a novel is one feature of a Novel Writing Workshop I’ll be giving at the North Vancouver library. In thinking about my presentation, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned over time.

writing the setting

From Pixabay

Setting is the world of our characters. Without a backdrop, characters would have no anchor; they’d be nothing more than figures in space.

I’ve read books where characters are well defined through description, interactions, and thoughts, but without a particular setting, something’s missing. Where do we put the characters in our minds? What is their status? What is their context? Who else is in the picture?

Through creating place, a writer becomes immersed in a character’s world. It’s easier then for the writer to come up with the appropriate dialogue and actions to suit both the character and place.

Examples in Bestsellers

When setting is done well, the reader is engaged writing the settingin the story. Take the book,  The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This novel about racism in the southern USA came to life, because of the way the author described how the privileged white women lived compared to the blacks who served them.

In the Pulitzer prize winning novel, All The Light We Cannot See  Anthony Doerr used the time period of World War II to place a blind French girl and a young German boy on opposite sides of the conflict. He also used how they were with their families in their home settings to write a story that gave a unique view of the war and the people in it.

Writing the Setting

Since I studied and wrote screenplays for a number of years, I naturally think visually when I write. I have to see where my characters are and what they’re seeing.

In my romantic mystery, A Cry From The Deep, I’ve been told by a number of readers that they felt  like they had actually travelled to the places I took them to—Provence, New York, and Ireland. Because I’ve been to all of them, it wasn’t difficult for me to paint the settings with words.

writing the settingAs my protagonist is an underwater photographer, my story contains a number of underwater scenes. I’ve snorkelled, but I’ve never scuba dived. I relied on my joy of going underwater for some of what I depicted.

I also used articles, photos and videos online to learn what it takes to be a scuba diver and to write what was beneath the sea, specifically the spots where my lead character, Catherine Fitzgerald, dives. I had to see what she sees, in order to do justice to the setting.

I also went out with some scuba divers on a dive boat to get a sense of what that looked like as well.

Using Photos and Memory

I’ve been fortunate to travel a fair amount in my life. Those experiences helped in writing the settings. A Cry From The Deep takes place in Provence, Manhattan and Ireland.

My husband and I had toured the coast of Ireland for a month and spent weeks in Manhattan, so I had photos that I could draw from. Same with Provence, an area in France where I’ve spent some time.

I also relied on memory.  There’s a scene in Aix-en-Provence, where Catherine goes shopping with her 7 year old daughter Alex. I remember the sidewalk cafes she passes while driving down the boulevard. I put myself in her shoes and ideas of what she might be thinking flowed from there.

A Treasure Trove of Images Online

writing the setting

The Fishing Town of Killybegs, Ireland

But when it came to finding the perfect base for the dive team, I needed to find a place that made sense for the job they were about to do. They were getting set to look for one of the lost ships of the Spanish Armada. Since the ships were lost on the west coast of Ireland, I researched that area.

My research suggested Killybegs, on Donegal Bay would be a good place for the dive team to launch their boat. I had never been there but I found a photo online and other references I could use. There was even a walking tour and some of the stops in the town ended up in my story.

Setting Affects Your Characters

Setting is more than just a filler in a scene. It can dictate how characters behave.

Let’s say your protagonist is crying. What difference will it make to your story if you put her in a crowded train station thousands of miles away from the man she loves? Or with him in a cluttered bedroom, or alone walking in a forest. How will the setting affect her behaviour? By stirring up images, you will find ways to write any actions or dialogue.

Setting Conveys a Mood

Setting can also convey a mood. Has the stormy day stranded the travellers in the train station? Are the skies grey outside the bedroom window or is it sunny, a sharp contrast to how your protagonist might be feeling? Is night falling and she’s stranded on a lonely road with no cars in sight? Can you see the possibilities?

Description of a Setting in A Cry From The Deep

writing the setting

© Diana Stevan        The Greens of Ireland

The following is one of the settings in my novel, A Cry From The Deep. After landing in Ireland, Catherine Fitzgerald is driving in the countryside for the first time.  

Though the skies were grey, the greens of the landscape were unlike anything she’d ever seen. It was as if God, the artist supreme, had selected every green paint available on the market and then some. There was Kelly green, avocado, forest, willow, apple, lime, and mint. One green flowed seamlessly into another as it marched over the hills and into the beyond. She passed thatched cottages behind old stone fences, neon-coloured pubs by the roadside, and new mansions set back on large properties. She even welcomed the times she had to stop to let farmers cross the road with their flocks of sheep. The gentle landscape was a welcome contrast to the frenetic pace of New York.

The photo shown here, as well as others, inspired me to write what Catherine saw as she drove in Ireland.

From A Cry From The Deep.

Time, An Element of Setting

Time is also an element of setting. Much of the novel, The Rubber Fence, takes place on a psychiatric ward in 1972.  In this psychological fiction, there are also scenes in patients’ homes, as well as scenes that show where the psychiatrists live. These settings support both the plot and the characters’ journeys.

The excerpt below shows the time when my protagonist, Dr. Joanna Bereza, and her husband, Michael, visited Memorial Park in Winnipeg.

When Michael suggested they have one of his fellow instructors and his wife over for dinner, Joanna knew it was about his desire to smoke grass. Gary and Donna weren’t potheads, but they indulged often enough and knew where to get good weed.

Michael’s craving to get high had been sparked a few months back when they had gone for a walk writing the settingto Memorial Park. It was where the hippies who traversed Canada stopped to play their music, swap stories, buy weed, or just hang out.

At the park that day, they’d seen a hundred or so young vagabonds sprawled on the lawn that surrounded the water fountains and the red geranium flower gardens. Their clothes were ragged and the hems of their bellbottoms soiled. Their feet were bare or encased in weathered brown leather sandals. The girls were braless, the shape of their nipples pushing at the rayon fabric of their tie-dyed T-shirts. Peace sign necklaces, long beads, and broad leather wrist wraps signalled the deeper changes ahead. The war in Vietnam was on everyone’s mind even though it wasn’t Canada’s war. And with all the draft resisters who had come across the border, the protests on both sides were only getting stronger.

The above scene came from my memory of going to Memorial Park during the early seventies when we lived in Winnipeg. It found its way into my story.

From: The Rubber Fence

A Final Note: A Fine Balance

Writing the setting well is critical but too much detail can bore the reader. I used to read James Michener, loved his tales, but skipped over his lengthy descriptions of places.

Because of my own taste in reading, I try to paint the scene with just enough words to give the reader a sense of the place. But just like painting with real paint, I don’t want to overdo it.

Picasso said, not only is it hard to start a painting (substitute novel), it’s also hard to know when to stop. I want the reader to see what I see, but I don’t want to give them so much that their eyes glaze over, or they lose track of the story.

What do you do to set the stage in fiction? Is your imagination enough for writing the setting? Or do you use photos from your travels or otherwise? Do you tear articles or pictures out of magazines or newspapers? Or use the internet as a tool? How about sketching? Anyone try that?

Happy Reading and Happy Writing!


4 thoughts on “Writing Settings For A Novel That Engages The Reader

  1. M A Clarke Scott

    Great article Diana. Excellent examples. Funny you should mention Michener, who causes many readers to roll their eyes in exasperation, including me. Even though his novels were always long winded, I think readers today have even less patience with description that doesn’t move the story forward.

    I’ve been complimented for my description of both character and setting; I think it’s because I’m a very visual person, trained as a designer. BUT I really have to watch that I don’t overdo it. An important rule to guide a writer is whether what’s being described is important to the point of view character (as opposed to the author), and whether they would actually notice those details. Sometimes state of mind can restrict what we see. And sometimes a character’s emotional state colors how they see it.


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