Kids' stories happen anywhere. Stories have been set in the desert in a hole in the ground (Holes by Louis Sachar) and in a grandfather's attic (Song and Dance Man by Karen Ackerman). Stories also take place at any time. They can be set in the future, such as Lois Lowry's The Giver or in the past like The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman. Placing characters in specific times and places helps define your characters and creates mood, suspense and foreshadowing.
Some writers insist you must begin with character, and from character the plot emerges. Other writers argue you must begin with the setting because characters are defined by the time and place in which they live. In truth, plot develops from the characters' interactions within a specified setting. Where and when people exist helps define motive. Motive makes your plot believable.
You can also set the tone for your story by focusing on the surroundings. Having characters shiver at the sound of an owl calling in the night sets a different mood than if the same character notices a love song playing on the radio. By referring to the forest near a neighborhood early in the story, suspense and foreshadowing are heightened when a character later is chased into those same same woods.
Through a child's eyes
When you write for children, it's imperative that you write about a kid's world: playgrounds, a best friend's backyard or bedrooms plastered with posters. Stories for children are peopled by kids interacting with other kids in a kids' world. Adults are minor characters—if they appear at all.
When developing the setting for your story, pay particular attention to the details you include. Are they really what a kid would notice? Here's a quick test. When you look out your windows, what do you, the adult, notice? Do you notice the lawn that needs mowing, weeds in need of pulling and leaves waiting to be raked? Or do you see a bumblebee boring into the porch rafters, tree limbs perfect to perch in and a tangled kite tail knotted in leaves? Which of those examples do you think a kid would see?
It doesn't matter if the characters are living in the 1800s or the year 2020. Kids are kids and they're going to focus on their immediate surroundings. If your story is set during the westward movement, the readers are going to be more interested in how it felt to bump over the ruts of the Oregon Trail than the politics of the era. When infusing setting in your plot stay focused on a kid's experience. Only show what your character is feeling, seeing and smelling.
If a contemporary setting is the basis for your story there may be unique features you need to describe briefly, but most kids know what typical schools and homes are like. Don't bore the reader with lengthy setting descriptions. Rely on showing your characters naturally interacting with just enough of their surroundings to give the reader a sense of place and time. The reader needs to be able to "see" the setting in order to believe your story and relate to the events as they unfold. Showing what your character chooses to interact with not only places your characters in a time and place, but it also helps you develop your characters by showing what the character finds relevant and interesting in his or her environment.
But how much description is enough? How do you know when you've gone too far? The questions get more complicated when you take into account that the length of description may vary with the type of story. Setting descriptions in a picture book may be unnecessary.
After all, the illustrations will show the setting for you. If you feel the need for any description, keep it minimal. Easy readers and beginning chapter books require brief descriptions of setting since they are written for younger readers who don't sit still for lengthy descriptions. Limit your brief descriptions to the setting elements that directly affect the plot or the character's actions. Novels give you more leeway for descriptions. Interspersing descriptions throughout the telling of the story rather than relying on solid blocks of narrative detail is much more effective.
Setting as the bad guy
In some stories for children, the setting serves as the primary antagonist. In Hatchet by Gary Paulson, and Karen Hesse's Newbery Award winning Out of the Dust, the settings become antagonists against which the main characters must struggle. Even if the setting isn't your primary antagonist, the setting can become an element that complicates the conflict. Weather, technology and terrain are just a few effective examples of setting components that could be used to thwart the successful completion of a character's quest.
Research for reality
So, how do you convey a realistic sense of place and time in fiction intended for children? Research is a valuable key to developing authentic settings. It's important to show your characters living in the right type of houses and wearing fashions specific to the times. Even appropriate word usage comes into play. In Debbie's book, Cherokee Sister, she had to change goose bumps to goose flesh because in 1838 the term goose bumps wasn't used! But even if you're writing a contemporary story set on a playground, research is still valuable. Readers won't take your story seriously if you don't portray the setting realistically.
Many writers fall into the trap of letting their research take over their writing. Don't forget—research is not your story! It is not necessary to write paragraph after paragraph showing every movement of troops during the Revolutionary War for your story set in colonial America. Having all that knowledge definitely allows you to write with authority, but sharing all the research you gathered would only lose young readers' attention. Instead, focus your research on the types of details kids find fascinating. Think like a kid. See your story's world like one of your characters. What would that kid notice and find important?
Of course, the best way to research your setting is by having first-hand experience. Nothing beats plopping yourself down in the middle of an environment and taking notes. But if you can't actually conduct field trip research, then make sure to spend plenty of time in the library, on the Internet or by simply finding similar environments to experience. Setting is an important part of your story. It defines your characters and affects the plot. It can set the tone and build suspense. Remembering to include rich details that position your character in time and place can make your story the kind that editors and children love to read.
This article appeared in the July 2000 issue of Writer's Digest.
Marcia Thornton Jones and Debbie Dadey are the authors and co-authors of 83 books for children and adults, including the Adventures of the Bailey School Kids series and Story Sparker. Their Web site is baileykids.com.