5 Tips for Building a House or Setting That Comes Alive for Readers

Author D.M. Pulley shares her five tips for building a house or setting that comes alive for readers based off her experience working as a structural engineer.
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Author D.M. Pulley shares her five tips for building a house or setting that comes alive for readers based off her experience working as a structural engineer.

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Working as a structural engineer for over a decade, I had a backstage pass to the rooftops, basements, mechanical chases, and service tunnels of old buildings throughout the Rust Belt, and I stumbled into a real-life mystery. During a survey of a vacant banking tower in Cleveland, Ohio, I found a safe deposit vault with hundreds of abandoned boxes filled with unclaimed treasures. I began researching the building’s history and inventing narratives to explain the deserted offices and the things left behind.

Ten years later, I finally sat down to write my first novel, The Dead Key, inspired by this unique place and time. Every book I've written since begins with the setting—the building, the town, the historical context—and I build my story on that foundation.

Writing strong first pages requires a great hook, a strong voice, and a clear premise. The first sentence should immediately catch the reader's attention, while the subsequent text should leave the reader wanting to dive further into the pages of the manuscript. But making the first pages of your story absolutely un-putdownable takes practice, patience, revision, and an eye for detail. Which is why we’re here: to discuss what to do (and not to do) to make your opening pages stand-out.

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The city of Cleveland, Ohio, with its underdog's history of struggle, corruption, crime, and resilience, is a recurrent setting for my books because I focus on these darker themes. I also happen to live there, which gives me a deeper understanding of the place and its people.

Many successful novels use real cities as the backdrop for fiction in this manner. Like Raymond Chandler's L.A. or Laura Lippman's Baltimore, these true-to-life settings can lend an air of realism, grit, and immediacy to a story, particularly a crime novel. However, many writers choose to invent their settings instead. Stephen King's infamous town of Castle Rock in Maine allows him greater artistic freedom in designing the landscape and populating the site. Inventing a place also avoids upsetting residents and readers, particularly when writing about smaller towns.

Whichever approach you choose, be sure to pick a setting that inspires you and fits the tone and themes of the story. Small towns where everyone has a secret are great for cozy mysteries, horror stories, and tales of domestic suspense. Big cities work well for noir, police procedurals, traditional mysteries, and thrillers. Regardless, to make the site come alive, you must know its smells, sounds, feels, and tastes well enough to put the reader right there.

Draw up Blueprints

Knowing your setting inside and out is the difference between it feeling real and tangible to your reader or feeling like a flimsy movie set. Before beginning work on the second draft, close your eyes and take a tour of your setting. Can you clearly picture the layout of each important building? Can you see the streets and surrounding landscape?

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Draw a rudimentary map of important locations in the story including street names, neighboring properties, and landmarks. This can be as simple as a few lines in a notebook, but spatial relationships between neighbors and topographical features adds depth and realism to the narrative and provides opportunities for tension and drama. How many steps must your protagonist take before reaching an important destination? What do they see along the way?

(Click here for tips on mapping the world of your story.)

My latest historical thriller, No One's Home, takes place entirely in a hundred-year-old mansion, so I created floorplans for each level of the house to help me visualize each room and the relationship between the spaces. Understanding the layout allowed me to create a palpable sense of isolation in the remote bedrooms and throw noises down long hallways. It also told me how much time my character had to react before the footsteps reached their door.

Build a Solid Foundation

Buildings, neighborhoods, and towns are like people. They have a character all their own complete with a past, present, and future. Like any character, the author should endeavor to understand the history, desires, and obstacles facing the places they write about. Create a character sketch for your setting as though it were a character in the book. How old is it? Who built it? What does it look like? What is its job or purpose? What does it want? What are its secrets? How does it feel? How does it change because of the story? Why is this setting essential to the narrative?

The bank building in my first novel, The Dead Key, sits abandoned and dejected with the answers to a thousand secrets buried in its vault, waiting for someone to come along. The lonely old house in No One's Home suffers multiple tragedies and longs to be made into a proper home. Lending personality and purpose to the setting adds atmosphere and endless opportunities for dramatization. Dan Chaon uses the dreary gray sky and slushed-covered streets of Cleveland to reflect and reinforce the looming sense of dread he weaves throughout his novel Ill Will.

Frame the Story

The setting should not only add interest for readers, it should be the platform for each plank of the story. It's the dimensions and location of the locked room in Cover Her Face by P.D. James that sets the parameters for committing and solving the crime. It's the cultural attitudes and high crime rate of 1970s Atlanta that motivates and animates Karin Slaughter's Cop Town.

Ask yourself, what makes your setting essential to the story. If you don't have a good answer, you need to work on finding a setting that not only fits the tone, mood, and dynamics of the narrative, but one that also feeds it.

My historical mysteries take place in aging buildings because they hold so many clues to the past—bullet holes, graffiti, lost items, and buried secrets. The house itself moves the story forward in No One's Home as artifacts and alterations left behind by former residents lead Hunter Spielman to unravel the history of Rawlingswood.

Add Structural Connections

Every character should have a relationship with the setting—be it love, hate, fear, or ambivalence—that is steeped in the history of the place and the character's backstory. Uncovering that relationship can propel an entire narrative as in Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, which slowly reveals the truth behind the idyllic small town of Wind Gap and the sordid past of its richest family. Similarly, it's the dark and murderous history of Hill House and the characters' fear of the mansion in Shirley Jackson's masterpiece that provides the intrigue and moves the story. Uncovering the links between your setting, your characters, and the past will lend depth and dimension to the story, if not become the story itself.

A novel's setting is the foundation that anchors it and gives historical context and meaning to the narrative. Treating the setting like any other character will force the author to examine whether it serves the plot, tone, and theme of the book. Like any other character, the author must know the setting inside and out and be able to clearly map its features to truly bring it to life. Without putting in this work to create a solid foundation, the structure of any story may falter.


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