Book Trends Blog

June 15, 2011

Settings by Bob Spear

Let me caveat this article by saying I wasn’t an English or a Literature major. I double majored in music and business at Indiana University. I state this to explain why the following article is only my perception and opinion. I won’t use standard literature terms but my own.

Settings for writers of fiction and nonfiction are absolutely critical. They are far more than geographical locations in my opinion. Because of my intelligence background, I tend to think of settings as the context. It includes location, but it also includes contextual elements such as culture, dialects, customs, costumes, architecture, manners, and even time frame. All these elements impact on what and how people say and do. They are the glue and rules that hold together societies. A character violating the setting becomes wide open to criticism and conflict, which is fine if the writer knows how to capitalize on it. Put a 2011 Wall Street Stock Broker on a ranch in Wyoming in 1930, and you’ve got one hopeless individual. Likewise, put a cowboy from that time and place into a corporate setting of 2030 (a common theme in sci fi) and you’ll have a totally bewildered, endangered person.

Now I’m not saying don’t do these things. What I am suggesting is that you understand the impact such a change of setting may have on a character and a story. As you develop characters, you must consider the setting and how they interact with it. For example, one of the things that makes writing historical fiction so difficult is doing complete and accurate research so that you get the setting right and keep your characters consistent with their interaction within that time period, locale, and society.

Is your story line plausible within that setting? What impacts has that setting have on people. What activities are expected from an English butler as compared to an Irish street urchin at the front door of a mansion bordering Central Park in 1903? Do you think that might be a setting for conflict?

If you have been having difficulties with word counts that are too low, expanding on setting descriptions and impacts would be a good way to pump up the word counts. On the other hand, I’ve also read writers’ materials that went overboard in the other direction. I’ve come across this problem a lot in romance and gothic tales.

Setting accuracy is also a dangerous area. Let me illustrate this with a real-life example. I once reviewed a historical western set in the 1870s. This is how the author described a particular scene: “We crossed the Missouri River and traveled for hours into the setting sun until we finally reached Fort Leavenworth.” So what, you say? Here is the reality of that setting: The train bridge across the Missouri River was just downstream from Fort Leavenworth, which borders and overlooks the river from some bluffs. There certainly wasn’t any need to travel westward for hours to reach it. The same author mentioned several place names in Arizona, when they actually lay in New Mexico. Making mistakes like these shows the writer didn’t even bother to look at a map of the setting areas. All credibility is destroyed. Don’t you make mistakes such as these. Although they make for great hilarity in the reader’s mind, they also label the writer as a complete idiot.

I think now you should have an understanding of the importance and complexities of settings.Do your due diligence to discover the full composition of a setting and how elements and people within it interact. Enjoy your research and analysis.



  1. Well done.
    You might not be an English Major but your layman’s explanation of the importance of setting proves you are a Master of the English Language.

    For me, the research in writing is often more fun than the writing. I once learned how fortress walls and moats were constructed and how the design and materials used varied with location and climate. I also learned how to make bricks from straw(grass) and clay. All this research so I could casually but realistically mention the fortress walls in 1 scene in my fantasy world setting! When I’m published, the reader will have no idea how much knowledge went into a line or two. But hey I actually got to designed a fortress wall ( from peat and loads of dirt supplied from digging the moat.)

    Comment by klerosier — June 17, 2011 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your kind words. You are so right about how much fun research can be. I’ve been having a ball researching native American mound builders for my historical fantasy, Cahokia. It also helps that I know the Midwest and the river valleys. (We write what we know).

      Comment by bobspear — June 17, 2011 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

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