The Importance of Setting
From labyrinthine museums to desolate outback mining towns. From crumbling rainforest houses to the stinking streets of Victorian London. Setting takes centre stage in all my stories. I spend a lot of time thinking setting, worrying setting, growing setting. I spend a lot of time loving setting to life. Why is it so important?
For me setting is bedrock. Most of my story ideas, the first inklings of what a novel might be, begin with thoughts about setting. For The Anatomy of Wings, I remember seeing open roads and desert skies. In The Midnight Dress a lonely red-haired girl beside a dark rainforest covered mountain. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy began with a daydream about a museum. And A Most Magical Girl started with a mental image of a rainy street in nineteenth century London.
Setting is important because no story happens in a vacuum. All stories need a WHERE. Just like us our characters must exist in a world where their stories play out. Just like us, our characters should be affected in some way by the WHERE in their story. That WHERE might be an amazing fantasy landscape or the simple detail in a plain suburban house. That WHERE might be an era or a season or a certain sort of geography brought to life. That WHERE might be a social or political backdrop.
For me setting is the foundation in a story. It is the glue that holds a story together. It is the scaffolding. It is the cradle. The writer’s job is to develop that WHERE and developing setting is every bit as essential as developing character and plot. I’ve listed below some of the things I do to grow and nurture setting in my story. I know that no two writers are the same. Writing is individual journey and you will find through trial and error what works for you but I hope some of these will help writers just starting out.
- I always feel slightly embarrassed writing it but it’s the whole truth for me. IMAGINE IT. Spend time imagining setting and day-dreaming it to life. Don’t pick up your pen. Just close your eyes. I remember seeing the museum in Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, the corridors and the carpets, all the dark gloomy spaces. I needed to find the route which Ophelia took each day from her father’s work room to the boy’s prison cell. I needed to know what Ophelia passed as she went, what she saw on her way. I imagined it again and again until I had it right.
- DRAW MAPS OF YOUR SETTING. I always say this to kids when I speak to them about writing. Don’t feel that because it’s WRITING you aren’t allowed to draw. I draw constantly. I doodle maps. I sketch the rooms my characters are standing in. I draw whole worlds and underworlds and troll kingdoms. I’m not great at drawing but it’s an essential part of getting things sorted in my head and what I call “cementing” my setting.
- GO VISIT YOUR SETTING. I think if you’re writing about a real place it’s useful to visit there. It’s not always possible I know but my day trips and fact-finding missions have always helped me. I’ve ridden the Cleveland train line in Brisbane collecting images for a short story and I’ve tramped the streets of London. I went on a hilarious and hair-raising road trip to Mount Isa with my mother while writing The Anatomy of Wings. And I made my toddler daughter bushwalk with me up near Kuranda while writing The Midnight Dress. I find visiting a place helps bring setting to life. It’s good for detail; you get to not only see but also hear, touch, smell and taste.
- TURN PAGES AND GOOGLE THINGS. You can’t always visit the places you are writing about. I did walk the streets of London but not for nearly as long as I would have liked and I also didn’t own a time machine to get me back to 1867. I relied heavily on the internet and books. For A Most Magical Girl I collected hundreds of images of the Victorian era on my Pinterest page: Victorian dresses and houses, English forests and ancient trees, images of the industrial revolution, and, in what became a consuming passion, pictures of Victorian mourning paraphernalia. I also looked at maps. I spent hours gazing at Edward Weller’s Map of London 1868 and the magic of the web allowed me to zoom in on sections of the city. I have equally spent hours in the books rows of my local library searching for information about the WHERE of my stories. Trove (the National Library of Australia) and Picture Queensland (from the State Library of Queensland) have also been brilliant resources.
- USE ALL YOUR SENSES. Always remember setting should not be one-dimensional. It should almost be a living breathing thing; readers should be able to see it and smell it and hear it and taste it. Always activate your senses when writing place. How does this WHERE smell or sound? What does it feel like it? I ask myself these questions again and again because I know that some of my strongest memories of place involve senses; the smell of cane fields at night, the sound of squeaky nursing shoes in dawn hospital corridors, the feel of my mother’s nylon dress when I sat on her lap as a child. Always think of the senses when you describe the WHERE in your story. It will be much more powerful for the reader.
- DON’T FORCE IT. But don’t expect to know everything about your story’s world from the get go. Let your WHERE evolve. My settings come to life through writing, through the process of diving back into new drafts. In A Most Magical Girl 1867 London came to life slowly, through writing the story again and again, through collecting a thousand mental images in my brain, by looking at old maps, by day-dreaming and thinking. As I wrote the story and explored characters, a picture of that world seeped up to the surface. Don’t rush things. I readily admit half the challenge of creating great setting is PATIENCE.
- NO DUMPING. Finally, don’t DUMP it. You might know everything about your WHERE but setting like characterisation is a delicate balancing act. Details of setting should be woven through your paragraphs not dumped in big piles. There is nothing more off-putting than having to wade through paragraph after paragraph describing a place. Give readers hints. Use one of your senses to hook them to a place rather than describe it in intricate detail. And most of all remember your readers have amazing imaginations too. They are seeing your words but they can also use their own imaginations to fill in details – part of the joy of reading I believe.
I hope some of these seven tips are useful to you. Happy Writing!
Karen Foxlee is an Australian author who writes for both kids and grown-ups. She grew up in the outback mining town Mount Isa and still frequently dreams she is walking barefoot along the dry Leichhardt River. One of four children she started telling stories when she was young. She filled countless small exercise books with sweeping sagas of orphaned girls illustrated with pictures cut from the back of Readers Digest magazines. She has worked as an underground cable mapper, pool kiosk attendant, library assistant and hotel laundry hand and eventually became a registered nurse. All the while she never gave up her secret dream of becoming a writer.
Her first novel The Anatomy of Wings was published in 2007. The story of the sudden death of teenage girl in desert mining town won numerous awards including, the Dobbie Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. Her second novel about the disappearance of a girl in tropical north Queensland, The Midnight Dress, won the Sisters in Crime Best Debut Crime Novel in 2013.
Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, Karen’s first novel for children was published internationally in 2014 to much acclaim. It was an E.B. White Read Aloud finalist that year. Her second novel for younger readers, A Most Magical Girl, published in August is already receiving great reviews.
Karen lives in South East Queensland with her daughter and several animals, including two wicked parrots who frequently eat parts of her laptop when she isn’t looking. Her passions are her daughter, writing, day-dreaming, baking, running and swimming in the sea.