(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter 5


            Where you set a story can be closely partnered with the type of genre(s) you’ve chosen to work in. A speculative fiction story is necessarily set in the future, historical fiction is set somewhere on our known earth in the past (and usually involves a historically important moment or figure), a fantasy story can be set in our world but is most commonly set in an elaborately constructed world the author has built from scratch, a work of literary realism (I’m thinking Ray Carver, Alice Munro, the whole kitchen sink fiction set) is not only set in our known reality but it prides itself on its ability to describe our reality as accurately as possible. There are even genres and subgenres with names that describe their setting: a traditional Western is set in the American Old West sometime in the 19th century, Urban Fantasy is a genre of the city, Space Opera occurs in, you guessed it, outer space.

Setting is not simply background dressing for your story—if utilized properly it becomes a character of its own and positively effects a story, providing a mirror for the characters passing through it and a helpful co-conspirator with a story’s plot (such as in every book ever set in a remote, isolated location where Something Bad is about to happen). A good setting helps develop and enrich a story’s tone and gives your reader something concrete to sink their teeth into, an environment that may be new to them and thus as compelling as the plot of the story itself, giving them an additional reason to keep turning that page. Setting can be used to mirror a character’s emotional state (the Gothic vampire broods in his dark mansion, the blackout curtains drawn as he waits for night to fall) or contrast strongly against it (the girl who has just learned her mother is dying goes out clubbing with her friends). An author’s description of the physical world their characters inhabit provides a mental map for the reader they will check back in on from time to time as the story progresses, grounding them in the narrative in a way only sensory details can.

Speaking of sensory details, when creating a setting an author is well-advised to recall and utilize all five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Don’t just tell us what the swamp looks like, describe how it smells and how its critter inhabitants cry out in the throes of their swampy existence. How does it feel when your character steps into that murky swamp water, how does that twig taste when he chews it with absentminded preoccupation.

Here’s a writing exercise I came up with for my students that usually helps getting the old sensory juices flowing:

The Bounty Hunter

Your character, a bounty hunter, has pursued someone into a sprawling city landfill on the hottest day of the summer. Describe their pursuit of their prey using all five sensory details (sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste) and try to pack in as many details in as possible.


The results of this writing exercise are usually exquisitely disgusting and leave little doubt as to where the story is set.

Personally, I’ve utilized a multitude of settings but seem to return to one in particular time and time again, like an old dog always finding his doggy way home. The majority of my strongest work, through no conscious decision of my own, has been set in a small town somewhere in America. Which I used to find strange, since I’ve lived in the heart of a city for the past thirteen years or so and didn’t particularly enjoy the small town experience, but I did grow up in a small town and I suppose my mental map was already very much developed by the time I left to go to college.[1]

Yes, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that small towns are in my wheelhouse, though they aren’t the most glamorous of settings. We are, after all, products of our environment, whether we want to be or not. What else can we expect of our writing, which is the purest distillation of ourselves and our dreams? Where else would our internal map takes us, even during our wildest flights of fictional fancy, but back home?



[1] I’ve written only one novel explicitly set in my home state of Minnesota. I suppose I’ve been worried about being labeled as a “regional” author but I also think I thrive on describing a world that isn’t totally familiar to me, which seems to provide an extra degree of freedom. Even my Minnesota novel was set in a fictional town.

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