Tag Archives: setting

Authors Answer 139 – Developing Setting

Last week, we talked about characters. But now they need a place. A well-rounded book has a setting. A good setting can create the atmosphere, whether it’s a real place or imagined. Real places are already established for the author, but they have to know it well. Imagined places require world building, and that can be a complex process. How do our authors tackle setting?

Question 139 – How do you develop the setting of your stories?

Gregory S. Close

I develop setting the same way that I develop characters, by establishing a history, economics, rules, laws, mores, religions, geography, species etcetera and then strictly adhering to that until I need to ignore it, modify it, or do whatever else serves the story best. There were a lot of things for In Siege of Daylight that shifted or changed altogether as the story came together, but having the solid foundation at the beginning allowed me the framework to be flexible when needed. Also, thinking thoroughly through things like economics and trade really add some realism and nuance to your cultures and countries.

Growing up, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. A LOT. This can be dangerous, because it can lock you in the stereotypes of RPG races and countries, but the mechanics of world-building really do come in handy when applied properly. Early version of the world of In Siege of Daylight were a campaign setting, and by fleshing out the world with adventures, characters and storylines that evolved unexpectedly it really helped develop the mythology and depth of the world.

For my science fiction setting of Greyspace, its a pretty similar method. I did a lot of research into space travel, emerging bio-tech, military tech, submarines (similar to spacecraft in terms of crew composition and psychology, and then a lot of different stuff on mythology and folklore for the magic elements. Again, a lot changed, but getting that solid footing for your world allows the leverage to pivot when you need to.

Cyrus Keith

Setting is dictated by the story line. On my first published novel, I set out to write a high-tech-hard sci-fi story. But the story line just refused to support it. There’s just so much going on all at once, the story would have been lost in the fog of all the gizmos and gadgets. My current WIP is set in a large city, because it features urban homeless people. As with characters, the specifics come about as the story develops. I don’t waste time on sketches and world-building because it changes as things come together, and I abhor “info dumps” that come with highly-developed worlds that authors are only too eager to show off.

Linda G. Hill

I have a hard time imagining settings, so I use real places to inspire me. Sometimes I name them (Kingston, Ontario, Canada is the main inspiration for the setting of my novel The Magician’s Curse), and sometimes I just observe and describe without making mention of where they are. I love to travel, and do so a lot just for the sake of my novels. In fact, I’m thinking about going to Edmonton in the coming months because the West Edmonton Mall is one of my settings. Maybe we can meet for coffee again, Jay Dee!

D. T. Nova

For the most part I’ve had setting made to fit the plot and characters, and not really standing out otherwise. I’ve been trying to change that and have more interesting settings.

Paul B. Spence

Usually in giant brainstorming sessions. It grows in leaps and bounds, and the options for stories to tell grows exponentially. I have a lot of basic information compiled from over the years.

C E Aylett

Um, same answer as last week? Research. Lots of it. Setting and character can be quite closely connected in the ways they connect and contrast. I have a class on how to build character from setting on Skillshare.

Beth Aman

Sometimes I just write them. Sometimes I’ll kinda prep ahead of time by drawing certain places or objects, or by making lists of sounds and smells of places. Then when I go to write them, I try to remember that settings should use all five senses, and that they should add to the general mood/ feeling of the scene. Often times, I have a lot of work to do in the editing process, because I’ll be so caught up in writing the story that I forget to fully flesh-out the setting. It’s a multi-step process, and I’m always going back and working on it.

Jean Davis

In my first draft, settings are generally utilitarian, whatever is needed to make the scene happen. Most of my focus is on dialogue and action. There might be a couple distinctive characteristics to help me solidify what I see in my head while I’m writing. If the characters end up there more than once, I’ll probably add more details in that first draft and pull it all together with a more polished description during the first major edit.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

A large chunk of my writing, thus far, has been based within the real world, and so I’ve gone about my setting development by simply describing places I’ve actually been. “Nowhere to Hide“, for instance, has the characters moving about in a zombie-infested version of modern-day Earth, so without actually naming specific places, I simply had my characters move around in towns and areas I’ve actually been and worked from there. The beginning of “The Other World: Book One” is similar; the high school I describe is based on the college I actually went to, and the town Tori lives in is based on the town where I grew up. Moving outside of the real world is more difficult of course, which I learned with the rest of “The Other World: Book One“. I find it difficult to to “make up” settings, so I tend to stick to my “real world” method, while adding in “fantastic” elements. Such as, for instance, the scene in which Tori first realizes she’s in a parallel universe: the setting is a simple field with a small cabin, but when she looks up, the stars above come in a variety of shining colors.

H. Anthe Davis

I’ve spent almost two decades developing just one setting, so it’s hard to say how that gestated (beside a bunch of notes in a high school journal that I just started adding onto infinitely). However, I’ve been developing a new setting on the side for a few years, in dribs and drabs, so… I guess it just starts with a core idea or problem to solve (for instance, make a world where zombies/undead are reanimated by ‘tainted’ water) then spin off of it to find the logic and culture that gets wrapped around the concept. Like…what is it about the water that does this reanimation? (It’s a goddess-of-undeath’s blood.) How did it get that way? (Enemies of the locals killed her, it’s her revenge.) Who were the enemies and who are the locals? (Enemies from overseas, locals etc etc…) What conflicts does this produce? What story seeds does it create? How many of those seeds can grow into the background-jungle of the main story, to add complexity to the world and themes but not entirely impinge upon the plot? Then, after I deal with most of those questions, I start researching and image-browsing for stuff that aesthetically suits the idea in my head, to build the visual facade of the setting over the bones of the stories it contains.

Eric Wood

When I start to write a story, the setting comes to me in pieces while I write, much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I know what the final image will look like, but the details fit themselves in during the writing process. Most of my stories take place during modern times in a fictional location. Then I just make up the rest as I go along.

Jay Dee Archer

I enjoy writing stories on other worlds, both science fiction and fantasy. I do a lot of world building. For my Ariadne setting, I started out with the concept, and then I drew a world map. After that, I drew another map with 16 sheets of paper. I created mountains, rivers, seas, oceans, ice caps, and climate zones. I then created countries and cities, expanding the colony organically. I focused on a handful of places that are important for the first book. Although I haven’t done so yet, I plan on drawing city maps and any maps of important locations. You see, I love maps, and they help me visualise places much more vividly and with consistency.

How about you?

If you’re an author, how do you develop setting? Let us know in the comments below.

What’s Difficult About Worldbuilding?

As you may know, I’ve created my own world, Ariadne, for my novels in progress. It’s been a very long process to create it, and has involved many different aspects of science and social science. It’s actually quite fun to do it. However, it’s not all easy. I think the more difficult parts are keeping track of some of the complex things, such as history, country relationships, and evolving cultures and societies.

What do you think would be difficult for you? I’m going to be writing a lot of posts about worldbuilding in the future, and I’d like to know what you feel you would need most help in figuring out. Let me know in the comments below what you think is the most difficult aspect of worldbuilding for fantasy and science fiction.

Fantasy Novel Settings Based on the Real World

A lot of fantasy authors are influenced by real history and locations. Some come out and say that they are a part of Earth’s lost history, and some are Earth’s future. And it seems like many are based on the European Middle Ages.

Lord of the Rings is based on Europe, and I think Tolkien admitted that. I believe it’s supposed to be Europe, but long before recorded history.

A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) is also based on Europe, but not actually in Europe, but a fictional world. In fact, the entire war is inspired by the War of the Roses.

Shannara is quite different, though. It’s based in a world that had gone through an apocalypse. I’m not exactly sure of the precise location, but it is North America.

What are some other Earth-based fantasy novels and series?

Change Over Time in Fictional Worlds

In real life, buildings come down, new ones go up. Towns expand, become cities. Towns lose population, become abandoned. Trees grow, trees die. Climate shifts, deserts grow or shrink. So much can happen.  I thought about this when I saw this today:



The centre of this road where the brown wall is had a lot of cherry trees lining a central walkway. Now they’re gone. Every tree is gone. Why? Well, these trees are called Somei Yoshino, and they have a 70 to 80 year lifespan. Last time I saw them, several of them were dead. They were all likely planted at the same time around 70 or 80 years ago. They were all dying. It looks like they’re going to plant new ones and probably do some repairs.

When developing a fictional world, it’s important to understand that changes happen. If a book happens over a span of years, or if a series of books happen over a span of decades or even centuries, things must change. It’s highly unlikely that the status quo will be maintained.  If you have a town, make sure that the population changes over time, new buildings are built, old buildings go into disrepair and may be demolished, new neighbourhoods pop up, and people change. Even important landmarks may be destroyed. Don’t be afraid to do that.

A dynamic and changing world is much more interesting. It can be challenging to keep track of the changes, but it contributes to the realism of your world.

Authors Answer 20 – Writing Is Challenging

Writing doesn’t always come easy.  In fact, it’s a rather lengthy process that is hardly easy at all.  Everyone has something they’re good at and something they find very challenging to do.  This week’s question was asked by Amy Morris-Jones.

320px-Modern-ftn-pen-cursiveQuestion 20: What element of writing (setting, characterization, plot development, etc.) do you find most challenging?

H. Anthe Davis

I think creating a coherent and controlled plot is my biggest problem.  My characters are basically people, so I’m rarely concerned about them, and I’ve been working on my setting for more than a decade so could probably detail it down to individual blades of grass if pressed.  But actually figuring out how to push all the characters into one place, keep them there, and make them do something dramatic and purposeful, can take me a long time to get right.  My first book spent a decade being rewritten until I finally figured out its plot, and even now my book 4-6 notes mostly concentrate on focal scenes and character arcs, not any coherent storyline.  I think maybe I’m the sort of writer who puts the plot together on the second draft.

S. R. Carrillo

Apparently, I have a problem with setting. My stories are always very character-focused, and so setting is the last thing that gets polished out of my brain and onto the paper. I’ve been getting better about it in recent months since it was brought to my attention, though.

Amy Morris-Jones

All of them! Maybe that’s why I wrote this question… I tend to focus most on character, so I’d say plot development is toughest. In particular, I HATE endings. They always feel so false, which they have to be. Life goes on beyond the “the end,” but as a writer, I have to decide when I’ve taken the characters as far as I can (or want to). I often think that’s why writers choose to write a book series—they don’t have to write endings as often!

Jean Davis

Setting is my downfall. I think this comes from reading too much fantasy in my teens. Long paragraphs of setting were the things that stood between me and what happened next. I skimmed many a well-described meal, festival, special gown, town history, pastoral portrayal of the surroundings, details of why the magical thing does what it does, and family history. So pretty much all those detailed bits that set the scene and build the world. And that’s still me to this day. Give me some tidbits to go on and my brain will fill in the rest. If only readers were also in my head, I’d be golden, but alas, I’m forced to go back during editing and put those details on the page.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

I’m going to have to go with setting. Characterization can have it’s issues, but I usually don’t have too much trouble with that, and plot is something that I generally just figure out as I go along and somehow it manages to work out. Setting, however, is the bane of my existence. I have a bad habit of forgetting where my characters have been and where they’re going. World-building is just something that I can’t seem to wrap my head around – my mind works in terms of “mountains…ocean…forest…” – so I rely on beta-readers and critiques to remind me that it’s impossible for a human character to walk 30 miles in an afternoon, and that the air gets thin on the top of a mountain, so my characters shouldn’t be running any marathons up there.

On a similar note, I find it difficult to describe places, even though I’ve got this perfect image in my head of what it looks like. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but while I can handle descriptions of people, feelings, events, battles, and psychological incidents, describing a physical place is one of the most frustrating things I ever have to do as a writer.

Elizabeth Rhodes

Worldbuilding, while rewarding is definitely the most challenging part.  Bigger picture aspects are easier to nail down.  Subtleties in the fictional universe are just as important but not often thought about.  Effective worldbuilding is time consuming because worlds aren’t meant to be small.

D. T. Nova

Definitely setting. With real settings, it’s so easy to have a research failure on something I’d never even think about, but a reader would notice. And inventing a setting that actually seems real is very hard work.

Caren Rich

Do I have to pick only one?  Grammar is always a challenge. Even when I do it right, I second guess myself and fret over every comma and apostrophe.  I have flashbacks of middle school, walking to the black board, and having to diagram a sentence.  I hated it and I am now scarred for life.

Paul B. Spence

Dealing with it when I find out halfway through a book that one of my main characters has been lying to me.

Linda G. Hill

Hmm… I think the hardest two things for me are describing facial features and, even worse, fashion. Clothes are a challenge for me in real life, so it’s no wonder.

Jay Dee Archer

I have difficulties with several aspects of writing, but I find that my most challenging thing to write effectively is character descriptions.  I have trouble integrating descriptions into the narrative without it sounding like it sticks out.  I need to work on that a lot more.

How about you?

What do you have the most difficulty writing?  Let us know your answer in the comments below.

Feeling the Atmosphere in Reading

I love reading books that pull me into the scene.  The action and dialogue is very important, but I get a lot of the feeling from the setting.  I love beautifully described scenery in books.

For example, Dan Simmons does a wonderful job in his Hyperion Cantos series in describing the different worlds.  I feel like I’m there.  There are so many wondrous and spectacular worlds to explore.  George R. R. Martin does a great job with A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones for those of you who only watch the TV series).  I feel the realism and grittiness of the atmosphere.

In the real world, I enjoy exploring new places, not only to see interesting things, but also to discover new atmospheres.  I like to experience how a place feels, and how it makes me feel.  Every place is unique, even though the urban landscape doesn’t change very much here in Japan.  Every neighbourhood has its own character and atmosphere.  I love that.

Weather also affects atmosphere.  Weather is, by definition, caused by the atmosphere, and it also creates atmosphere.  Later this week, a typhoon will hit my area.  During a typhoon, everything seems to change.  It’s like I’m in another place.  In fact, I love typhoons.  I find them fascinating.  I’m looking forward to the weather this week.

The sun can also create atmosphere.  Nighttime feels totally different than daytime.  The shadows are different.  The air is different.  Areas that are vibrant and busy during the day may be dark and mysterious at night.  This is shown quite a bit in Terry Brooks’ The Word and the Void series.  A lot of the story takes place in a park, yet the feeling is totally different between day and night.

Seasons bring different atmospheres, as well.  I love the feeling of spring and summer.  While the weather is wonderful here in fall, it also gives me a feeling of sadness, as it’s getting cooler and moving toward winter.  Winter is my least favourite season, so I’m thankful it’s quite short in the Tokyo area.  But snow can sure change the atmosphere.  It rarely snows here, but when it does, it seems strangely peaceful, yet chaotic.  The white coating over everything looks and feels peaceful, but human behaviour is completely changed.  And lots of people are out when it snows, especially those trying to figure out how to drive and walk.

Whether in a book or real life, I really enjoy feeling the atmosphere.  It can affect my mood and outlook on the day or scene.

How’s the atmosphere where you are now?

Attention to Detail

My time in Japan began with me noticing everything around me.  But after a few months, these details were completely skipped over by my eyes and my brain.  I was in a haze the entire time, unable to really see what I was looking at.  Then I started to seriously take pictures more than 4 years ago, and I regained that attention to detail.  I find that I still look around at everything.  Tonight, as I was walking from the station, I walked along a riverside path under the cherry trees.  Although it was dark, I could still make out the changing colours of the leaves, still mostly green, but many turning red.  It had me thinking about what I could see.  I saw the leaves, the branches, the trunks, and then the entire structure of the trees.  I was seeing the lamps lighting up the path, the buildings on the other side of the street to my right, and the overhead power lines.

I began to wonder about what characters in books see.  We don’t always read about what they see, but what is described to us through the narrative. In first person point of view, it’s most likely we’ll read how the character sees everything, but not so much in other points of view.  I write in third person, which provides the reader a picture of what’s happening if they’re standing near the characters (although somehow we’re plugged into the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters).

And then, I thought about how authors describe the settings.  How detailed do they get?  Tolkien was extremely detailed.  I’ve had a friend tell me that his wife couldn’t read Lord of the Rings because she couldn’t handle the information overload that the descriptions gave her.  It was too much.  I think too much detail can bog things down too much, even though I thoroughly enjoyed Lord of the Rings.  It did result in my reading of it getting sluggish through The Two Towers.  But too little description makes it difficult for me to figure out exactly where they are and what they can see.  I don’t understand the environment.  I can’t form a good picture in my mind at all.  And sometimes I get a decent description, but some things are missing, making it quite confusing (MoonRush was like this, making me wonder if some saloon on the moon had airlocks or not). We need a good balance, and I hope to achieve that in my writing.

What do you think?  Do you like a lot of description, or something more balanced?  Let me know in the comments.

Settings in Fantasy: Learning from Historic Monuments

As I read fantasy novels, I notice that many locations tend to be similar to medieval Europe.  Fantasy gives me the impression of the time of knights and kings in Europe.  Many of the places reflect old Europe, the castles in particular. However, it’s not always European history that fantasy takes after. Deserts are often Arabian, grasslands are Mongolian, cold wastes are sometimes Inuit, and wild and arid places are African. That’s what I notice culturally.

What I intend to do is every once in a while, choose a country and find a landmark that seems interesting.  I’ll describe it and discuss how I may use something similar in a fantasy setting. If a stock photo or a photo in public domain is available, I will use it to help illustrate what I’m imagining.  Finally, I’ll write a brief scene using the location.

This will be a writing exercise for me, and I would appreciate any feedback.