Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Story Setting: How to Make It Unique and Realistic

Nothing can bring a book to life more than a great setting. Sure, the characters are important, but setting is a close second.

Take Anne of Green Gables, for instance. How many "kindred spirits" want to travel to Prince Edward Island as much as they want to meet Anne? They want to paddle across The Lake of Shining Waters and experience The White Way of Delight in all of its beauty.

We choose the settings for our stories in different ways. But regardless of how they originate, I've noticed there are three primary types of settings writers deal with. I'll break them down below, as well as provide tips for how you can make your setting stand out.

Well-Known, Highly-Visited Settings (for example, New York City)

- Find a unique angle to freshen it up. Don't settle for generalities or cliches. Hone in on a particular neighborhood, a particular store or shop, a park, etc. (Think Breakfast at Tiffany's. Or how about Sleepless in Seattle, when they meet at the top of the Empire State Building?)

- Make sure the setting details are accurate. Since your readers have likely been there, they'll notice any inconsistencies or misportrayals. And you don't want to pull them from the story with a setting flub that's easily fixable.


Real Settings That Lend Themselves to Uniqueness (for example, Sandwich, Illinois, in Alley-Cat Krista's book ----> )

- Play up the unique aspects. Whether it's the town name, like Krista's book, or a unique geographic location (a beach town, for instance), bring those things to the forefront in the story. Let them be key players. Think of the setting as another character in and of itself, with its own quirks and personality.

- Present the setting from an authentic viewpoint. It might mean you've already spent time there, or it might mean you need to go on a research trip (or do a virtual visit online). Look at the setting from fresh eyes and seek out the traits that first get your attention. Your readers are relying on you to transport them there, and they want the full experience, not a high-level skimming.


Fictional Settings Based on Real Settings (For example, The town in my book is set in the same geographic area as a town where I grew up. I gave it a different name to give me creative liberty with the story details.)

- Even though the setting is fictional, make sure you get the details right on a general level. If you've created a fictional town in Minnesota, it's not realistic to have 90-degree weather in December. Consider the general geographic area and keep it true-to-life.

- Create unique details, but avoid making them too over-the-top. Readers want to be transported to a great story setting, but they also want it to be believable. Once you cross the point of being too outrageous, the reader may give up on the book altogether.


No matter which type of setting you write, the key is to keep it unique and realistic. A well-written setting will enhance the story, not detract from it, and it will likely create lifelong fans. All you have to do is visit Prince Edward Island to see the proof. :)

What types of settings do you typically write? How did you end up planting your stories there? What are some of the quirks or unique "personality traits" of your settings that play a role in the story?

*Special note: There's a fourth type of setting I didn't cover here--fictional story worlds created by fantasy writers. Since I have no expertise in this area, I'm leaving it to the capable hands of the fantasy experts. :)

**Green Gables photo from
***Deer photo from

Sarah Forgrave is a stay-at-home writer-mom who feels blessed to pursue her calling and passion. She writes contemporary romance for the inspirational market and is a contributor to the webzine Ungrind.

To learn more about Sarah, visit her personal blog at:


Jessica Nelson said...

I loved Anne!!

Greatpost. Setting is something I still struggle with. I'm not particularly descriptive or visual so it's work for me to do this. Like you, I created a fictional town similar to my own in my contemporaries.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I am terrible at setting! I mean, really bad. I want to get right to the dialogue and just have talking heads the whole time! Unless, of course, I'm writing medieval, and then I like to have men fighting with swords. *heaves a huge sigh* :)

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for the informative post! It makes me want to take a closer look at the setting in my current project.

Lindsay Harrel said...

Great post, Sarah. My first MS is set in Phoenix...go figure! I wrote it because I know it so well, and not a lot of books I've read are set here. While I described some aspects generally, I wasn't overly descriptive. Maybe I should have been more so. My next book will be set in San Diego...hmm, maybe I need a "research trip" to get the details right. Think my husband would go for that? :D

Oh, and you know I love Anne and plan to visit PEI someday! *dream*

Heidi Chiavaroli said...

I love the advice of making your setting like one of your characters. If I think like that, I tend to put more effort into creating believable settings.

Thanks for the post, Sarah!

Cynthia Herron said...

Sarah, excellent advice on settings!

I write about small-town life based on a fictional town in the Ozarks. As you said, we have the freedom then to take a few more "creative liberties."

I think what makes settings more realistic in our minds is the writer's own voice. It's those little details that authors add that make all the difference. Stories shouldn't be over-the-top with description, but adding key words that appeal to our five senses can literally turn night into day.

I loved Anne of Green Gables, Sarah. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jessica, I have to remember to include setting details in my work too. :) I love coming up with a setting that is unique in and of itself so that it really makes the story sing. :)

Sherrinda, LOL, Dialogue and action are good things! Don't feel bad! It just takes a few well-placed brushstrokes of setting detail to set your story apart. :)

Andrea, Thank you! I love that I've made you want to dive deeper into your work. Mission accomplished. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Lindsay, Good point! I don't think I've read many books in the Phoenix area. As someone who's visited there once, I'm thinking of the unique things that stood out to me...the cacti that looked like prickly people, the lack of deep green colors (unless you're at the golf course :))...Those are the types of traits that make a story stand out. Oh, and I like you're thinking on San Diego! :) I'm planning to write a book about a girl who travels around the world just so I can take a research trip. ;)

Heidi, It can be really fun to give your setting a personality all its own. :) Maybe it's because I love to travel, but one of my favorite things about reading fiction is the chance to travel somewhere new. :)

Cynthia, I love what you said about key details that appeal to the five senses! It's so true. Writing a great setting doesn't mean long-winded paragraphs describing the trees and flowers...All it takes is a few well-placed descriptions to make a reader feel like they're there in person. :)

Unknown said...

Great stuff! Oh, how I love Anne of Green Gables. :)

I love small-town quirky settings, so that's what I went with in my first novel. A great setting is just as much a character in a story as, well, the characters.

Stacy Henrie said...

I SO want to visit Prince Edward Island. Great post!

Casey said...

I'm with Sherrinda, I'm lousy at setting and it doesn't play a huge role in my story. I know BAD! But I'm trying to get better. Having the setting interact with the character and his/her emotions. And Anne is such a GREAT example of that.

Good post! I also love characters that live in that setting, but really don't play a huge role in the story, but bring flavor and dimension to the story.

Keli Gwyn said...

I love the element of setting. Since I write historicals that take place in real towns, I do plenty of research so I can bring them to life. If possible, I visit the towns so I can do a better job of describing them.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Melissa, I think small quirky towns are popular with readers too. They can add a great element of humor along with challenges and obstacles for the characters.

Stacy, I would love to visit PEI someday too! Although I have a fear that it won't be as perfectly romantic as it was for Anne. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Casey, Great point! Characters can be another component that enhances the setting, almost as if they're a human representation of the setting itself.

Keli, Historicals bring a whole new element of setting. I'm sure it must be really fun to visit towns and find historic elements that existed in the time period you write.

Beth K. Vogt said...

I want to go to PEI too, Sarah!
I chose to set my novel in Colorado -- actually both books 1 and 2 are set in CO.
But even within the "real" setting, I wove some fictional details because, well, why not? I'm writing fiction after all.
I want to get better and better at writing setting/storyworld with each book I write.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Yay, I love fun settings! I primarily write fictional settings based off my experience with small towns I've visited. I create just about everything in the setting, but I do try to make them realistic as far as weather and geographic features, etc. I want to go to Prince Edward Island, too! :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Beth, I can't wait to visit Colorado through your books. The little snippets you've given in your vlogs have me anxious to read. :)

Cindy, I love the setting you created in the one I read recently! Those are the kind of unique details I'm talking about. They add a whole new element of conflict to the story. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I think the setting issue is likened to being a passenger in a car with a driver who does not know the way to your house. You get busy talking and suddenly you realize your house was three blocks back.
We know the setting...our readers don't. It's so easy to get caught up in the story and neglect the setting.
Great points, Sarah.
Great post.

Karen Lange said...

Good post, Sarah! I too, wouldn't mind visiting Prince Edward Island...:)

Thanks for the great tips!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Mary, I love that analogy! We don't want to go on the journey by ourselves...We want to be the best tour guides possible for our readers. :)

Karen, Thank you! Maybe we'll both get to PEI someday. :)

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

I recently read Cathy Gohlke's book, "Promise Me This." The setting details gave the characters a great stage.

A story lean on setting is like placing an actor on an empty stage.

Angie Dicken said...

I LOVE's the landscape architect in me. I am very anal about getting the climate and plant types right in my settings...weird huh? I had so much fun researching my nov set in the Amazon! I am a geek!!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Susan, Cathy's book is set on the Titanic, right? And I love the analogy you gave about the stage. So true.

Angie, I bet the Amazon was a super-fun place to research! Hmm, now if you could talk your hubby into a research trip there. :)