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The Where Of It: Writing About Setting

February 1, 2012

This semester I am teaching a freshman course called Classic Children’s Literature in Scotland. The course culminates with a week in Edinburgh, Scotland, where my group will explore the where of the literature we’ve examined.  I’m hoping that once the students breathe in the atmosphere of the old city with its mysterious closes and stairs, haunted cemeteries, and of course that looming fairy tale castle on the hill, they will understand more about the authors we’ve studied.  We’ll spend time in the countryside too:  the Borders where Sir Walter Scott found inspiration for his ground-breaking historical novels, and in Robert Burns’s home territory where he breathed in the natural world from his father’s tenant farm and forged his egalitarian viewpoint from behind a plow.

The point I wish to make to my students is that place matters to writers; they absorb it from infancy and it profoundly affects their work.  Our own American folktales with their wide-open frontier sentiment are a far cry from Scottish folklore.  The later is dominated by the fairy folk – the brownie and kelpy, the merman and bogle – as well as witches and hauntings.  Is it any wonder in a land dominated by bleak landscapes so often enshrouded in fog and mist – a country surrounded by the sea?

Setting is so important to the work of any writer, but let’s talk here especially of the novelist.  Children’s writer Judy K. Morris calls it “the third post along with plot and character on which fiction rests.”  Place creates mood and mood colors our characters’ thinking and reactions.  It grounds them and creates a context for all that they do.  That means we need to be especially aware of how setting works.  It starts with the senses, of course.  We have to look, listen, smell, feel, and taste a place and then boil it down to its essence on the page.  We can’t overdo and become tedious, but then neither can we pass up the opportunity to create atmosphere in our work.  Here are a few suggestions for getting the where of it down on the page.

  • Study the weather in all seasons and places. Then capture your fleeting impressions on paper while they are fresh in your mind .  You will have quality descriptions on hand when you need them.
  • Use weather to mirror your characters’ moods.  Watch how it miraculously increases the drama.
  • Go for the specific over the general description.  Without boring the reader, we must create a background setting that is alive.  A real setting has things in its – things that reflect class, taste, even character.  A wonderful professor I had always said, “Specificity creates authentic.”  There is no place for general observations in the novel.
  • If you’re writing about a setting that’s removed in time from today, tell your reader right away.  Unless you explicitly state that fact, readers assume you’re writing about the present.
  • Integrate your setting descriptions bit by bit into the text without feeling the need to bundle everything into a dense paragraph.  It gets boring and readers might skip it.
  • Make a map or diagram of a setting for yourself if it’s a big part of your novel.  It will help you keep things straight.
  • If you’re writing fantasy, establish rules for your fantastical world and stick to them; your setting must be grounded – at least a bit.

Come March, I’ll be reacquainting myself with the settings of Scotland.  Who knows where that will lead?  On my last visit I explored the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides and heard some fascinating folktales.  I’d always planned a retelling of those unusual tales.  With an open heart and an observant eye, anything is possible!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2012 5:41 PM

    These are great tips! I think setting often gets overshadowed by characterization and plot, but it’s so important. You’re going to have a great time in Edinburgh! It’s an enviable position 🙂

  2. February 2, 2012 9:12 AM

    You are so right, Gretchen. A well-drawn setting can transport us to another world and help us to understand that world. Love the illustration too – makes me wish for a rainy day and a fat volume of fairytales.

  3. February 3, 2012 10:48 AM

    Oh how I wish I were your student!

    I didn’t grow up in Scotland but in northern Spain, a misty land very much like Ireland/Scotland and with a Celtic past to boot.
    I have started a feature in my blog where I talk about the places that inspired my medieval fantasy novels. You can see some of these places on my first post at

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