“The How of Where” — The Importance of Setting in Your Fiction

“All description is an opinion about the world.” — Anne Enright

In some books, you scarcely recall where the narrative took place. Others could have unfolded anywhere, at any time. Perhaps this was a purposeful decision by the author – universality, timelessness. But if the story is intended to be a product of its setting, how to render that setting in a living way? How do you take it from backdrop to character?

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to 10 random commenters. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: The 10 winners are Clay, Jamie, ninorota, Dennisfp1, Chezza, pmettert, ktgresham, Eddi, Karen and ltodd.)


Guest column by David Rocklin, author of THE LUMINIST (Oct. 2011,
Hawthorne Books), a debut Publishers Weekly called “beautifully written,
…If Rocklin plays to his strengths, he will be a writer to watch.” Rocklin
grew up in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He lives in
California with his wife and children. Find his author website here or
follow him on Twitter.



For me, historical fiction is no different than contemporary fiction in at least this way: I hope to glimpse my life. I may move through prehistoric caves, or walk the streets of Depression-era New York, or in the case of my novel, The Luminist, inhabit the neglected Ceylon estate of a colonial wife and the Tamil boy she draws into her obsessive pursuit of the first photographs. Wherever I am, I sift details of meals eaten in the upper and lower classes, clothes worn, slang uttered, how they slept and where they worked; I pin them to the prevailing forces of their world. Through those details, even fiction removed in time becomes immediate to me.

There are ways to uncover those details. I am drawn to old photographs, for example. Julia Margaret Cameron’s iconic portraits and her lesser known images of colonial Ceylon captivated me upon first encountering them, and they fueled my exploration of the themes that became the foundation of my book.

(Chapter 1 cliches and overused beginnings — see them all here.)

Writings (journals, newspapers, etc.) that are contemporaneous to the period, if available, can convey authentic voices and idioms. Old maps, their boundaries long since redrawn, nevertheless speak of vanished villages, dead rivers, or historic plagues. Biographies are wonderful tools for locating the threads of character and sociological/political backdrops from amongst the tangle of a finished life.

These are tools that can be used to do what is so difficult to do in creating your setting: resurrecting something that stopped existing before you started writing about it. The town, the house, the atmospherics of history, shift a little or a lot the moment your character begins to consider them.

Now, about the messy business of infusing place with character.

Imagine visiting someone you know well. Imagine sitting with them as you have a thousand times. Describe them. Now, tell yourself that they had a twin, who died tragically at an early age. You never knew that before. The narrative of your life with them has proceeded to this point without this information. But now you know.

Look at them again, and observe what has changed. What is different about the look in their eyes or the way they dress, or where they choose to live or what they do for work? Nothing. Everything. To render these differences, whether granular in detail or broadly stroked, is to make the character breathe.

(Do agents Google writers after reading a query?)

Let’s apply this to setting. Find a room you’ve never seen. It has no meaning to you and holds nothing of your past life. You don’t know its contours, or how it looks on a cloudy morning. You can literally find one and occupy it, or find a picture and imagine yourself into it. Describe it. Tell the readers what we see. What we could touch, if only we were really there.

Now, describe the same room a second time. This time, give the room a story. This is where someone died. That chair was where a husband sat as his wife told him that she was leaving him. Out that window, a single mother watched a moving van pull up after losing the house to foreclosure.

What just happened? The room’s physical description changed, didn’t it? That’s not merely a bed. That’s not simply a street outside. The walls and their peeled paint have something akin to a voice. This setting isn’t just an edifice or a space anymore. It bears witness.

I think of Fitzgerald’s fictionalized Long Island, its eastern and western sides and the inlet between. DeLillo’s New York, violently reborn in the collapse of the twin towers. Hemingway’s sea, washing an old man away and back again, to a home that may no longer hold a place for him. I think of settings such as these and cannot help but know the characters that populate them.

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to 10 random commenters. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: The 10 winners are Clay, Jamie, ninorota, Dennisfp1, Chezza, pmettert, ktgresham, Eddi, Karen and ltodd.)



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29 thoughts on ““The How of Where” — The Importance of Setting in Your Fiction

  1. mlnuttgill

    Great idea! I will try to use this device. I am writting current day but in another country. It is such a great challenge to write about something you don’t know as well as your backyard, it takes lots of research but also wonderful writing devices to make it breath and give the reader the feel of the place even though they have never been there.

  2. Jamie

    This was a great read for a blog. I loved the “exercises” provided. They really help to get a new perspective on a setting. Thanks for your advice Mr. Rocklin.

  3. Transitoria

    Writing historical fiction can be tough. In one of my WIP, I have to stop every few paragraphs to research things like when were zippers invented or stethoscopes. It’s important to get it right or the reader will be pulled out of the story by jarring discrepancies of fact. When that happens too often, the reader stops reading because the author has lost credibility. I believe that historical fiction requires more effort than science fiction because in most cases the reader agrees to suspend disbelief when he picks up a sci-fi book. As the future is unknown, the past is known only too well.

    I can’t wait to read THE LUMINIST.

  4. SallyB

    I agree, setting is most important. In fact, in my book, “Williwaw Winds,” I use setting (the Bering Sea) as a main character. Being a nature lover, I use natural settings often in my work. It’s rewarding to not only give the reader a visual picture of the setting but also to teach facts about the natural world–even in fiction.

  5. sldaly

    Great article! Thank you. I loved the idea of providing a story for the room – so much different than just describing the bits and pieces that make up the room; and exercise for overall writing, as well as for setting. Similar to making up stories about people one sees in a restaurant or bus stop.

  6. recavasca

    David, thank you for a well timed article. I am writing historical fiction, and I sometimes wondered if my main character is too modern, in the sense I and others could relate to her. Am I setting a 20th century girl in the later part of the twelfth? You made me realize we have to relate to the humanity of the character, the timeless human emotions. As for physical settings, I do like a taste of it, not a full blown description of place. Some people have the gift of setting in a few sentences instead of long paragraphs (I start skipping those). I like your idea of place becoming character.
    Thanks again, and I hope I’ll be reading your novel soon.

  7. psyberwill

    Infusing character into a setting – why not?! Setting can serve the foil of the protagonist every bit as much as a real person can. Or, it can be the “supporting actor” in a cast of human characters (think of Gone With the Wind). Giving a setting a “voice” to bear witness to a time and a place and to the people inhabiting a particular period will serve me well in my future writing endeavors.

    Thanks, David!

  8. ltodd

    Thank you, David, for an intelligent article on setting. I especially appreciate the exercises you included. They will help me to present setting in a meaningful way in my own work.

    Have a wonderful holiday season!


  9. wondering04

    Great post. Setting is the area I’m weakest in. I need to learn how to move the plot through setting and dialogue combined. Your book sounds interesting and challenging to write. Combining elements of upper and lower class life in one novel sounds interesting. I pray your book does well in sales. I love the title – it is intriguing.

    Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

  10. Goldencat

    I think of the Neil Diamond song “Play Me” as I think about what experiencing story setting is like. “You are the words, I am the tune – Play me.” is an invitation to the artist to enter the flow of the time/place and paint with words. To me, writing is like music and visual art: shades of color, snatches of melody, a scent of something evoking memories…and it’s my job to pull the readers into that experience. To “play” for them. I don’t know if Neil was a storyteller outside of music, but the lyrics are oddly apt:
    “Words that rang in me,
    Rhyme that sprang from me
    Warmed the night, and what was right
    Became me.”

    I can’t write what i don’t feel, so I suppose that’s another way of saying I see into my own life and share it. That’s true of art-as-therapy too. Creativity is an unconscious expression like dreaming, and reveals things that are maybe too honest to speak plainly – but are revealed if we will be honest with our waking mind. But the reader doesn’t have to know all that – they see themselves and their own dreams through ours. The storyteller’s gift.

  11. ktgresham

    I think these little exercises will be a great help for me. I am new to novel writing and am finishing up NaNoWriMo at the moment. Describing settings has been one of my weakest points–how much is too much? too little? Your article makes me realize that I’m not alone in finding these questions a bit difficult to answer. Now I’m off to sit in a room I’ve never been in before with a person I know well and read a biography from one of my characters’ peers.

  12. rosanne.dingli@gmail.com

    I am an author to whom location is of utmost importance. However, I think David might be interested in my novella about the history of photography in Antwerp, Belgium. It is a historical piece that is steeped not only in time, but especially in place. It is called Vision or Delusion, and is contained in my collection of that name. One can see the book cover on my site. It would be amazing to exchange notes on writing about the history of photography and those it drew into its ‘camera obscura’ in more than one way.

    I have a novel based on location and photography called Camera Obscura coming out (BeWrite Books) in a few months. Hee hee – must get The Luminist now. Off I go.

  13. Chezza

    “It bears witness” says it all. A “light bulb” moment.
    (Would love to accept your book but I live in New Zealand. I’m sure there are many others worthy of your gift).
    Thank you.

  14. MichelleAntonia

    I love the almost “fantasy” element of historical fiction. These stories take place in a world and a time I don’t recognize and because of that, there’s a romanticism that naturally laces itself into even the most tragic stories.. But you’re right, I too am looking for a glimpse of my own life. And in the best historical fiction, I find it. I believe wholeheartedly that that’s what makes storytelling essential to human beings. That connection.

  15. Suanne

    I’ve just done a short story and novel set in Africa. In one, the setting was peripheral, in the other, a vital part of the main character’s personality was bound with the setting. Capturing the landscape, the local customs and food, the rich heritage was a challenge.

  16. KitchenBroad

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. It helped explain the necessity of putting in words what the senses automatically pick up in real life. I will definitely use your pointers on developing setting. Thanks!

  17. JohnyB

    An amazing article David… It left me scratching me head! I cannot believe the enormous amount of detail I have been wandering through life missing! You know the old saying… “eyes wide shut”… thats obviously been me!

    Not yet convinced I am truly worthy of the mantle of “writer”, I struggle internally to bring forth topics, or ways to describe those topics I do discover. I’d see an empty room when peeking through a door, and move on; never once pausing instead, to wonder why the room was empty; or what it may have previously held; or of the many ghosts of lives, each with their own myriad of struggles, that may have passed through and at one time been sheltered by the very room I now simply saw as… “empty”! I have a new outlook now, thanks David.

    Johny from http://www.redeyedwriter.com

  18. ChiTrader

    I MUST treat the setting of my WIP as a character because it’s set in Minnesota. The weather here demands so much respect, and affects so much of what can or will happen, that it must be treated like a character who has the power to kill, maim, or psychologically torment. (Think of a farmer enduring yet another year of failed crops due to floods, tornadoes, hail, or drought. And don’t forget cabin fever. For many residents, it’s a real and serious malady.) Six months out of the year, it can kill you if you are the least bit careless or unfortunate.Many people die from hypothermia each year.

    I only hope I do it justice.

  19. burnssf@msn.com

    Great advice! Setting is so important for establishing the emotion of the story, and you have explained it precisely. I am looking at my own work with this new filter to see where I have missed the mark. I love learning something new. Your “perspective look at life” gives me greater insight into that process than I’ve thought about before. I “knew” it when I read it, but could not begin to “see” it until now. Thank you!

  20. Rashena

    Great article! I have been blown away most recently by Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Triology and wondered how one could even begin to tell such a story since I have a hard time putting what happened even a year ago into words. This makes it a much less daunting and even exciting to think about and try!


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