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Specificity in Setting

A great, big “thank you!” goes out to my readers who were able to attend the webinar yesterday afternoon. (Some have been asking technical questions about it. Since Writer’s Digest operates the webinar, they’d be your most helpful resource. Contact them using the information in your registration packet, please.) I got a lot of great questions during the webinar, that I’ll be addressing in the future, and I also got a lot of great questions from Wednesday’s post. If you asked me a question there and there’s enough of an answer to post about, do keep an eye out for the answer on the blog soon!

This question comes from reader Valeria via email, and it deals with setting, which I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about:

Most books I have read so far describe a specific setting. Like a certain city or state. I know setting and the way it is developed is very important for a story but can there be such thing as a nameless setting? I am asking because I live abroad but I don’t want to set my story in my country. The problem is, I’m not familiar with other cities. I have been describing my story’s setting as a dark and gray city, but not a specific city. In fact, I would like to keep a mystery of where exactly this gloomy city is located. I’d like for my readers to think this can happen in any city, but is this really a good idea? Should I research my setting a bit more and name it?

I love it when readers answer their own question. But I did want to talk a bit more about this particular one. Setting is important. So important, in fact, that some readers and writers and editors and agents say that setting should become like another character in the story, as well-defined as any of the people that populate it.

While I think that some writers focus entirely too much on the particulars of their setting and too little on their people (for example, high fantasy writers or hard sci-fi writers who spend countless pages describing the world or spaceship they’ve created, complete with maps and another language, and too little time on the characters), I think that specificity and attention to the setting is essential in a story.

If you don’t want to give the setting a real name, invent one. Turn up the fantasy element of the setting. You’ll give your created world instant flavor, and its people a place to identify with. As human beings, we can’t help wanting to identify with a place and calling it home…we need somewhere to belong. Kids and teens are always talking about where they live, their favorite places, or the places they want to escape. Listen to the first questions that a little kid will ask you when they’re getting to know you: What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite color? Where do you live? Then they will proudly identify themselves, ie: “I live on Cherry Street!” That’s why a name is important, too. It gives people something easy and immediate to identify with. When I meet people in New York, the little kid rule is still true. One of the first questions they ask is what neighborhood I live in, by name.

Place is very important to the human mind. And fleshing out your setting is just part of the novel writing craft. If you’re not comfortable really writing a brand new setting for your story, at least give it a name and characteristics and details. Paragraph descriptions of setting on every page are clunky and dull and won’t engage the reader as much as action will, but you still need to give your story a sense of place with as many specific details as possible. In Valeria’s example, just “dark and gray” for a city isn’t going to be enough. Readers need more details to bring what’s in their mind’s eye to life as they’re reading. If that includes creating a fantasy version of your own city and calling it something else or doing careful research on other cities, then that’s what it will take.

I’m familiar with the urge to make a place universal enough that the reader will think it’s their own town or city. This notion is why a lot of medieval literature and plays featured a character called Everyman. This Everyman character was supposed to stand in for the reader and symbolize the universal significance of the action and how it applied to a generic character who, literally, could be anyone and everyone.

However, that’s a very cheap way of making a reader relate to your story. You might as well call your city Your Town and have that do all the work for you. I’m here to say that the opposite of the Everyman idea is true. Instead of finding really vague and generic things relatable, readers relate to the specific. Which of the following two will make you think that the character is like you?

She ate a sandwich.

She bit into her turkey sandwich, only to have a slice of red onion escape and fall on the floor. Five second rule, she thought, glancing around to see if anyone was looking. Using a fake cough as an excuse to bend over, she peeled the onion off the cafeteria linoleum and popped it in her mouth.

By giving us specific details in the second example, I’ve created a character who is relatable, and I’ve also taught the reader something about her as a person. Not only do we feel like, yeah, we’ve been there, we’ve dropped that food and picked it up off the floor before, but that she’s like us, and she’s a little embarrassed about grabbing that onion, but she does it anyway.

The same will be true about your city. If you give us specific details — “Hey!” the reader thinks. “There are soda cans in the rain gutter in MY city, too!” — they will actually be more relatable than generalities.

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  1. Laura Pauling’s avatar

    Great advice. As with everything else in writing, it seems to come down to the details!

  2. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    Thanks for the post Mary, I’ve been struggling with setting. This really helps.

  3. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    Great post!
    I try to write what I would expect when I read. If a specific location (i.e. country, city, etc.) is not clear within the first few chapters, it tends to distract me from fully enjoying the story. I can’t feel like I’m living it if I don’t even know where I am.

  4. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    I was happy to read this post because setting is something I’m actually good at, and the places in my stories are essential characters. But setting isn’t talked about much, so I wondered if being good at setting was kind of like being good at page formatting. OK, but not something that has a lot of relevance to whether the story works or not.

    Then I was distracted by the idea of eating an onion off a cafeteria floor. There are at least two additional conditions to the five-second rule: It only applies to foods to which dirt won’t stick, and it’s only worth the risk for something too delicious and valuable to pass up, like say, a Snickers bar.

  5. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Ooh! Ooh! Miss! *Hand up in the air!* Can I mention A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper as a really good example that could help people here?! Montmaray is not a real place but I swear I was reading to get an atlas out to check if the author was in fact fibbing about it not really existing. She makes that place SO real.

    Valeria, if you have the chance, grab a copy of that book. It really is a great read and will show you how research can help you create a fantasy place that’s as real as New York, London, Berlin or Nuuk. (Capital of Greenland, in case you didn’t know.)

  6. Bree’s avatar

    Kelly – You read my mind about the onion!

    Mary – I really enjoyed your seminar yesterday. I expected that at some point you’d say something that would make me realize I should give up and find a new dream, but instead it had the opposite effect. My revising went much more smoothly last night because I focused more on trying to tell the truth as my MC sees it. Very helpful stuff!

  7. Rachel’s avatar

    Great post, Mary. Good information. And now I want a turkey sandwich. :-)

  8. Margo Kelly’s avatar

    Great post – but also really loved Kelly’s comment regarding the five second rule. HA.

    But…if the character is willing to pick up an ONION and eat it – we learn even much more about her character. Most of us ( I HOPE! ) would pick up a dropped Snickers (or other form of chocolate) but how many would pick up an onion? I think the idea that this character would – tells us she’d be willing to do other unusual things…and that makes me want to read more.

  9. Margo Kelly’s avatar

    Great post – but also really loved Kelly’s comment regarding the five second rule. HA.

    But, consider: if the character is willing to pick up an ONION and eat it – we learn even more about her character. Most of us ( I HOPE! ) would pick up a dropped Snickers (or other form of chocolate) but how many would pick up an onion? I think the idea that this character would pick it up – tells us she’d be willing to do other unusual things…and that makes me want to read more.

  10. michelle’s avatar

    I have written historical fiction where I had to do a lot of research about a particular city and the events that took place. I am now working on a YA fantasy and decided to make up a whole new world. I’m finding that it is just as challenging to make up an imaginary place as it is to describe a place that already exists. I think attention to detail is so important and writing either way – real or imagined – is a lot of work. Thank you for letting us know it really does matter!

  11. Monica B.W.’s avatar

    Umm, wait… if my character doesn’t like onions does that mean she’s not relatable?
    *scurries to change ms and have MC eat a bowl of onions until MC has very watery eyes*

  12. Traci’s avatar

    This is something I’m working on with my latest revision. It’s very important to ground your readers, put them in a place so they can walk around with the characters. This is something that doesn’t come easy for me. Loved your example, and like Margo Kelly said, the fact that this girl is willing to pick up an onion off a cafeteria floor says a lot about her. She is unique.

    Thanks for another great post!

  13. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    True, Margo. Eating an onion off a cafeteria floor reveals a lot about the character, but nothing relatable. Like it makes her seem like an alien or Renfield sort of character…

  14. Chersti’s avatar

    I think another important aspect is that while reader’s want to identify with the setting, they also want a place to escape to. A new world with a great setting can be just that place, like in the Harry Potter books. So when the author makes their setting come alive, it’s like the reader is going on vacation! And as long as you have some things the reader can identify with (oh look, a table! I have one of those. Oh… they go to school, too, and have teachers that hate them… wow, that is so similar), then the reader will still feel the familiar. So instead of making the setting universal, add universals to your setting.

  15. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    You, for serious, just made me visibly gag.

    Which I guess is the point there, eh?

  16. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    I LOVE when authors give details about a setting. I know that with urban fantasy, I especially adore when authors use a city I’ve been to and describe with such detail, I can literally retrace the steps used by the characters. To me, that makes the story that much more vivid, because I can place myself at that location and picture everything.

    With my current manuscript, I’m using historical Edinburgh as a setting, and it plays a HUGE part of the book. Just as much as any of the character. I don’t want to get away with, “the city was dreary and it rained often.” Rain in Scotland is just as temperamental as any character, and this city has so many nooks, crannies, and unique features to it, that I want it to come alive in the story.

    Sometimes, I think people can get away with being a little vague with setting, but I like to remember that setting is also another fantastic way of establishing the tone to the novel. While recognized as a rather trite line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” certainly establishes a certain framework, aye? Just as having a bright, blindingly sunny summer afternoon as the setting for tragedy would create an interesting juxtaposition.

  17. Mary’s avatar

    Wow. I guess I just revealed more about MYSELF than the character in the example. I love red onions and think the 5 second rule applies to everything. Um.

    Also, people, she’s eating a SANDWICH. What’s more likely to fall out of a sandwich…a slice of onion or a Snickers bar?

  18. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    All right, now seeing all this mention of sandwiches, red onions, and Snickers bars just made me hungry, not disgusted.

  19. Shveta Thakrar’s avatar

    *grin at Kelly and the follow-up comments*

  20. Steph’s avatar

    This isn’t a fantasy setting, but a fabulous example of how a setting is like a main character in a story is in STOLEN by Lucy Christopher. Some people found the book too slow for them, but regardless of that, no one can deny the descriptions of the Australian desert in which it takes place is AWESOME. AWESOME.

    Steph

  21. Bane’s avatar

    Onions are disgusting… this girl needs to get a hold of herself. And there ain’t nothing wrong w/ a snickers sandwich (preferably w/ chocolate chip cookies in place of bread, but bread’ll do, bread’ll do).

  22. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    Mmm, Bane, can I come to your house for lunch?

  23. Ishta’s avatar

    Great post!

    And, um, the five second rule only applies when I’m at home. In my house, or a close friend’s house.

    Mary, are you a Grey’s Anatomy fan, by any chance? There was a memorable moment in an episode a while back in which a dropped kidney got given to a transplant patient anyway, the head surgeon shrieking,”Five second rule! Five second rule!” LOL. Hope that doesn’t ACTUALLY happen.

  24. Anita’s avatar

    My problem with setting is that I have to work hard not to blather on and “tell” about the setting and instead find way to “show” it. I love how you said “she peeled the onion off the cafeteria linoleum.” You slipped in the location as a detail rather than telling the reader: “She was eating a sandwich in a cafeteria.” Great post.

  25. Amy’s avatar

    Yeah, a cafeteria-floored onion? I wouldn’t even want to invoke the 5-second rule. (But I do get the point)

    One of my pet peeves is when I read a book set in General Amercia–which usually means the Midwest (authors looove nameless Midwest towns), and I spend my attention catching about references to Chicago being the closest big city and winter weather and so forth because the author won’t just come out and say, “MyTown is in Ohio (or Nebraska or Michigan or wherever)!”

    On the other hand, I just read Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr books, which I enjoyed, but I was sooooo tiiiiiired of him taking cabs to precise NYC neighborhoods. I felt like I could draw a detailed map of NYC after reading all those super specific references.

  26. Jennifer’s avatar

    Onions = blah, but Snickers…yeah, I’d probably pick that up.

    I really enjoyed this post (and the comments) – definitely like knowing where the books are taking place, but I like when it’s mentioned more casually…I guess the whole showing, not telling.

    I cringe when I read books that sound like travel guides: “Jane walked down 1st Street, past the bagel shop, and then she turned right onto Main Street, where the bank with the giant clock stood…Next, she took a left onto Pine Ave…and then she…and finally she…”

    Lee Child (sorry, not YA, but he’s the first name that popped into my head) is great about writing settings. He’s so specific about things that I can always picture these places that I’ve never been to before.

  27. Valeria’s avatar

    After reading this so many new ideas popped in my head. (And food cravings too)
    Now I just gotta work on writing them out of my mind. (And head to the grocery store.)

    Thanks for the answer!

  28. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Happy to see other onions-haters in the comments.

    My setting challenge right now is in describing a post-apocalyptic central California. Imagining what a neglected city would look like – as well as the rural areas – is frustrating for me. Especially because (confession!) I tend to skim over even short setting descriptions when I read.

    I better plunk myself down with some of the setting greats, and do my homework. No skimming! Thanks, all, for the recommendations in the comments, and thanks Mary, for a great post.

  29. Mary’s avatar

    Beth — Why is it so hard to imagine a post-apocalyptic central California? You could just go to Stockton and look around! ZING! (Sorry, I’m from the Bay Area…I had to…)

  30. Ann Marie Wraight’s avatar

    This post was especially enlightening and informative as it broached a subject that isn’t discussed very often.

    The onion lady was a brilliant example – especially as I love devouring anything that stinks…perhaps that’s why most of my socialising is done online! As a reader this certainly drew me in as it could have been describing me!

    Your point about the “Everyman character” in medieval times and “the universal significance of the action” was an interesting one. We take international travel and space flight for granted in the 21st century, whereas in Medieval times the vast majority of the population hadn’t gone much further than their village or smallholding. The action was much more important than setting (such as in The Morality Plays) for this reason, too. The average person didn’t even know what a town or city close to them was like and so couldn’t relate at all to such strange concepts!

    Nicely argued and explained! Thanks for the post!

  31. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Haha, Mary, good one! My husband is also from the Bay Area. The summer we moved here (to central CA) it was 100 degrees and he thought he was going to perish. Of course, the car he bought in Mill Valley had no air conditioning, which didn’t help.

  32. Rhay’s avatar

    Mary, having come to your blog after your webinar Thursday (Which was great) I have found equally great things here too. Thanks so much for all the information. In regards to setting, I loved your comment “I think that specificity and attention to the setting is essential in a story.” As a reader, I love when the author gives me a real feel of the place. The flip side of that, however, is too often, I feel there is too much of “setting dump”, especially in the first few chapters. Anyone wish to comment on the light touch of setting specificity?

  33. Rose Green’s avatar

    Specific details are something I thought a lot about when I read the Harry Potter series. Here’s this extremely British book that is nonetheless read and loved the world over. The thought I had when I was pondering this was, sometimes to be universal, you have to be specific. People’s minds can translate a lot of things to their own situation. But they need some specifics to hang the story on.

  34. Jess Tudor’s avatar

    A great recent example of this is Charles Benoit’s YOU. Lots of details about the hoodies hanging out at the local playground after dark, the stores in the mall, Aberzombie’s, Spencer’s and the five stores that only sell sneakers….

    He gave his MC an address 110 Mill Street. And someone else had an address, say, 292 Lincoln Drive. Whatever. That’s the only bit of address we get. The school is Midlands, and there’s the nicer high school Odyssey. There’s never a city mentioned, but we still get enough specifics to feel like this is our town.

    I found it very effective and might be worth trying. Make up enough good specifics and you probably don’t need to name the place. I mean, Benoit could’ve just said they lived in Springfield (any of em, heh) but he didn’t have to.

  35. Melissa H’s avatar

    I had this exact question but hadn’t asked it yet so thank you! Very helpful reply.

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