Details in Setting: 3 Steps to Write Somewhere You’ve Never Been

“Write what you know” is one thing, but if we all stuck to place we’ve been, we’d miss out on some awesome stories. Today I’m talking about how to make places you’ve never been zip and zing off the page.

Step One: Is your place real or imaginary?

If it’s real, you’re good to go. If it’s imaginary, where’s it like? What place on earth could it be? It certainly doesn’t have to be identical, but having a particular place in mind will help ensure you don’t put tropical parrots in a Welsh forest. Which, trust me, will drive your ornithologist readers (and they do exist) crazy. If your place is real but your story’s set in the past, you may find it more helpful to compare it to somewhere else. For instance, if your story’s set in the past of a town that’s very developed these days, perhaps you want to research a neighbouring town that’s better preserved?

Step Two: Turn to your senses.

For each of the five senses, make a list of things that might register. For example, if I went to the beach near my house early this morning (keeping in mind it’s winter), I’d have:

Sight: Dense fog, a spit of land covered in dark rockpoolsfading out into the silver, perfectly still water that merges with the fog, creamy sand, dark patches of beached seaweed.
Touch: Soft sand, squishy clumps of seaweed, slippery, uneven rocks, clammy air.
Sound: Distant hum of an occasional car, my footsteps crunching on the sand, nothing else.
Smell: Salt, decomposing seaweed.
Taste: The tea I had before leaving home, tangy salt.

So that’s everything that comes immediately to mind, and you probably have an image in your head now. But what if I wanted to write about a Victorian ballroom? I can imagine it, but I have no idea if I’m right, and just as importantly, no idea if I’m missing lots of awesome details that would make it real. What I’d do is brainstorm what I might find. Keep in mind I’m totally pulling this stuff out of thin air — at this stage it may or may not be true.

Sight: Lots of colourful dresses swirling as ladies turn, some sort of lighting (lamps, candles, chandeliers??), guys in suits, hands holding fans?
Touch: Wearing gloves? Holding a fan or a glass? Wooden floor under feet? Lots of bodies quite close, making it warm?
Sound: Music, people talking? Who’s politely able to talk to whom?
Smell: People sweating? Food? What kind? Perfume? What kind?
Taste: Food (what kind, served how?), drinks?I have a lot more question marks on this unfamiliar ground. So now I turn to…

Step Three: Hit the media.

Resources include:

  • Quality historical shows (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey)
  • Documentaries (I love The Supersizers, but there are so many)
  • Contemporary books (Dickens, which was written during Victorian times, or whatever’s relevant)
  • Non-fiction, especially with pictures
  • If recent enough, people who lived then
  • Google street view if contemporary (true story, I once changed a WIP after using it to inspect a building, then discovering an awesome escape route park next door!)
  • Creative options — for a book set on a spaceship, could you tour one on the NASA website?

Jet-setting aside, what have you done to create a realistic world? Add your suggestions!

  

17 Responses to Details in Setting: 3 Steps to Write Somewhere You’ve Never Been

  1. Chemist Ken Aug 3 2012 at 9:25 am #

    These are all good suggestions. Descriptions are one area I definitely need to work on. Even when I come up with a good description I struggle to find a way to incorporate it into a scene without sounding forced and unnatural. My hope is that it gets easier with time.

    • Amie
      Amie Aug 3 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Oh man, I hope it gets easier too! It’s one thing I often have to add back in when I go back to my first drafts — that’s why I’m studying up!

  2. Sandy Aug 3 2012 at 10:08 am #

    I have bought travel books not only do they have pictures but I got them to find out names of towns and cities, they also have information on the history of the country, popular local dishes and lots of other interesting information.

    • Amie
      Amie Aug 3 2012 at 10:28 pm #

      And hey, who doesn’t like reading travel books just for fun? Wait, am I strange like that? This is a GREAT approach. Those little historical quirks or local dishes are what can add so much colour to your setting!

  3. Kaye M. Aug 3 2012 at 10:47 am #

    My current WIP is set in Asia – which I do have blood from and have visited, but in the wrong area (South Asia). I’m trying my best to just push through the draft, even as I do more research/try to immerse myself in the culture, and just leave little footnotes about where historical accuracy needs to be added or something needs to be taken away.

    Speaking of immersion, a lot of people seem to despair when they can’t make it to the country/culture of choice, but I’m trying to augment my (empty) wallet with little changes to my life, such as using chopsticks and trying to learn as much of the language as possible. It’s a little thing to do, but it’ll help until I can save up for a plane ticket.

    • Amie
      Amie Aug 3 2012 at 10:42 pm #

      This is brilliant — I’m in the process of arranging to try on some fantastic clothes as research for a WIP. I think little changes like trying chopsticks just get your mind asking questions, wondering what other things might be different as well. Opening yourself up to the possibilities of those sorts of questions is great!

  4. Candes Aug 3 2012 at 10:48 am #

    I’ve gone so far as researching the history of marriage and customs just to get the details right as well as the fashion of the era. I like to research. I get lost in dialogue then forget to describe the scene. I recently purchased “Description & Setting” by Rozelle that includes exercises. It’s been a great help so your post is quite timely. Thanks for the tips.

    • Amie
      Amie Aug 3 2012 at 10:42 pm #

      Pinterest has been deadly for me in researching the fashion of the era. I’ll look at the Rozelle exercises, I can always use the help — so thanks for your tip too!

  5. Caitlin Aug 3 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Research is so fun! 😀 I mean, I am a history minor, so I guess that helps, but I love researching other settings and time periods.

    I write historical, so I’ve been known to spend hours on the internet looking up fashionable clothing of the era, as well as food, floor plans for houses, maps of cities (old maps are my favorites. I LOVE old maps!!), etc. etc. I also happen to have an excellent relationship with various interlibrary loan programs, which is great.

    • Amie
      Amie Aug 3 2012 at 10:53 pm #

      I’m a history major! *pauses for fistbump* I’m with you, I can immerse myself in that stuff for HOURS. And after all, w have to, don’t we? Until somebody invents us a time machine, we’re out of luck on the research trip front. So I’ll just HAVE to spend a little longer staring at old maps. (I have several stuck to my study walls. Bonding with you right now.)

      • Caitlin Aug 4 2012 at 11:36 pm #

        *high fives* History studying map fans for the win! 😀

  6. Natalie Aguirre Aug 3 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Great tips Amie. I definitely struggle with description and setting. Your tips are super helpful.

    • Amie
      Amie Aug 3 2012 at 10:53 pm #

      Excellent, I’m so glad they’re useful!

  7. Rowenna Aug 6 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Great suggestions! One thing I find helpful is to go somewhere similar to the place–even if it’s not even close to being 100% the same. I might be writing about the Taiga but spending some time in a woods five minutes away reminds me of sensory details about forests I’d forgotten.

    One thing to be careful of–as an anal history type–if you’re going for strict accuracy, even high-quality historical programs can contain inauthenticities. It’s great for getting a “feel” for the time and place, but if you need facts, you’re better off in the library 😛

  8. Reyna Avelyn May 17 2014 at 6:24 am #

    Thank you so much for the tips. They’re really useful. I’m a bit new in writing so I guess I’ll need all the tips I could use.

    Um, still, I’m writing a contemporary which the setting is in England, and yet, I’ve never been to England. I couldn’t get my hands on a travel books because I don’t have any, I’m researching though. I have a cousin there in Lincolnshire, but, I’m trying to avoid asking help from her, mainly because I’m too embarrassed. I’m from the Philippines, you see and my country is about as close in being England as a poodle might become a bulldog, so I don’t have that much reference.

    Should I research and ponder on what’s available and imagine the rest, since, I’m the writer of my own story anyway? Please reply.

  9. Reyna Avelyn May 17 2014 at 6:26 am #

    Thank you so much for the tips. They’re really useful. I’m a bit new in writing so I guess I’ll need all the tips I could use.

    Um, still, I’m writing a contemporary which the setting is in England, and yet, I’ve never been to England. I couldn’t get my hands on a travel books because I don’t have any, I’m researching though. I have a cousin there in Lincolnshire, but, I’m trying to avoid asking help from her, mainly because I’m too embarrassed. I’m from the Philippines, you see and my country is about as close in being England as a poodle might become a bulldog, so I don’t have that much reference. ..

    Should I research and ponder on what’s available and imagine the rest, since, I’m the writer of my own story anyway? Please reply.

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