Write that Novel #5: Setting

When you’re working on your characters, you need to keep in mind your setting. This is the where and when of your story. It can be as easy as your own living room, or as involved as a new world in a different universe. Wherever it is, it will form the background for your characters. In some stories, the setting can even be what the main character is fighting against – a man vs. nature type of story.

You should get to know your setting at least as well as you do your characters. Settings can be a fickle as characters – warm and spring-like one minute, freezing and snowy the next, just like in real life. You can use a real place as your setting, but if you do, be sure you really know the place. If you don’t readers who are from there will know and will let you know, and not nicely. You need to know what a “native” knows. Books and online research can give you some of this, but not the details you should have. Where do you go for a really good burger? Where should you not go after dark (or even in daylight)? If you’re going to create your own setting, you should have these facts as well.

To begin with, let’s work with setting that is in the real world, whether real or fictional, current or historical. Next week, we’ll work with other worlds that fit fantasy and science fiction settings. The first thing you need to realize is that you are going to have to do some research. Yes, I know. Boring. But actually, it can be fun and interesting. Even if you set your story in a place you’ve lived your entire life, there are still things you’ll need to check out, especially if they are places your character is going to have to use. Suggestion: have a notebook and a camera handy so you can take pictures (or download them) and make notes of street names and more.

Work through the question below to get a start on creating your setting:


  1. What is the year and/or time period of your story? Descriptions depend on when your story is set. If it is historical, you can’t have modern cars and jets. So what year does your story take place? Once you have this set, you can go on to the next.
  2. What time of year does the story take place? Think about seasons and weather. This will affect what your character wears and his or her activities. Does the story take place over a wide space of time or is it confined to a week or two?
  3. Where is your story set? What is the name of the city/state/country? Even if you’re making it up, your town will still need to have a name.
  4. What is the general topography of the place: mountains, seaside, river, island, etc. Potential for flooding? Blizzards? Tornadoes? Hurricanes?
  5. What is the general plant life of the area? The trees in New England are vastly different from the ones in Florida and this could impact your characters. Are there window boxes? Tree lined streets?
  6. What kind of wild animals are in the area? Even the middle of a huge city has some kind of animal life.
  7. What kind of housing is available? Single family houses? Farms? Urban apartments?
  8. What kind of transportation is available?
  9. What kinds of shops are there? Are there small bookstores, boutiques, bakery, Big Box stores etc?  Describe the local commerce.
  10. What are the buildings made of? How old are they? Is it a mixture of new and old? What style? Are businesses mixed with housing?
  11. What kinds of signs are there?
  12. What kind of lighting is around?
  13. What are the sensory impressions? Smells from a bakery? Or a sewer plant? Fresh winds off the ocean? Smog?
  14. What do you hear? Traffic from the freeway? Nothing? Cows?
  15. What are some landmarks?
  16. What is the population like? The median age of the locals?

Character Specific Details (main characters)

  1. What kind of place does s/he live in (apartment, ranch house, old Victorian)?
  2. What kind of furnishings does s/he have?
  3. What is the view from his/her place?
  4. What does s/he hear in the middle of the night?
  5. What are the neighbors like?
  6. What is his/her neighborhood like?
  7. If s/he needs something, where would s/he go to get it? (nearby stores, etc.)
  8. Where does s/he work?
  9. What is his/her workplace like?
  10. Where is his/her workplace in reference to where s/he lives? A long commute? Or just downstairs?

These are the basics. Like creating characters, you can get as detailed as you want. Just remember, you won’t use it all, but it will help when you get to writing to know what the background is so you can write it with ease.

Homework: Get your setting notebook ready and go for a roadtrip (even if it’s only online). Make notes on setting for your characters.

One thought on “Write that Novel #5: Setting

  1. Hi Vicky!

    It looks like I’m going to get some very useful advice from your site! Thanks!

    I’m posting my current novel on my blog as I write it – the first two chapters are up now. If you had time for a quick read your advice would be much appreciated!!!

    Keep up the good work on the site though I’ll be keeping an eye on it! Will have to have a search and see if there’s an editing tips page – that’d be very relevent for me at the moment!


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