(Long post warning...and giveaway) :)
A few months ago I just finished reading an Amelia Peabody book (again) and I am (again) completely captivated by the world Elizabeth Peters created. Now, I only picked it up as research for a book I wrote, but from the first chapter, I was drawn into the setting of Cairo and the arid environment in which Egyptologists and archeologists saturated themselves to uncover ancient relics.
Elizabeth Peters’ book was thick with a world I’d never experienced, but through her story, I traveled to Egypt, felt the busy-ness of Cairo’s streets, and even delved into an ancient mystery.
Last night, I finished reading Laura Frantz’s newest book, The Rose and the Thistle, and I got to traverse the beautiful world of lowlands Scotland (not too mention the darker and stinkier 18th century Edinburgh).
How did Laura and Elizabeth help me travel those places?
And how do we make that happen in our stories?
One of my favorite things in writing (besides developing characters! I LOVE creating characters!!) is helping my readers get a sense of place in the storyworld they’ve entered. I adore bringing the readers into Appalachia or Bath, England, or even my endearing made-up island of Skymar.
I could really write three separate posts on this issue, one on each of my points, but I’ll try to sum it up 😊
1. Know your setting
2. Take the Organic Approach
3. Move the senses
First things first, get to know your setting. Of course, this is for obvious reasons – if you don’t know your setting, how on earth are you going to describe it for others?
There are different ways to do this:
A. Traveling to the places
B. Massive research
C. The Author’s own imagination
D. Taking stories from others and fictionalizing them/or incorporating them into yours
E. All of the above (or a mixture of a few)
E would be the usual answer 😉
It takes a blend of experiences, knowledge, and imagination to bring a setting to life in the best ways. But what do we need to know to impact the setting’s creation?
Oh goodness, I don’t have enough space here to go into all the possible information, but here are a few questions to ask while shaping your story world.
What does the place look like? (duh, right?)
What’s the mood of the place? How does it feel? – for example, in Lord of the Rings, Mordor has a very different “sense” and weather to it than the Shire. Even the weather sets a tone for the setting in those two places.
What sort of people live here? Is it a mix of cultures? Agrarian? A city? The smells, sounds, even the accents are going to be different, depending on what you choose.
What are the jobs in this setting? A fishing village by the sea is going to have a different style, flavor, and feeling than an upscale, city street. A rural area is going to give off a different vibe than a suburb – not only in what we see, but in what people wear, the way they talk to each other, and even the pace of life.
What traditions influence the setting and the people?
What is the history of this place? Has it been there a long time? Were there any significant historical events that took place there? Will these influence the setting of your story or the people within it?
How about the geography? Having an ocean nearby is going to create a different culture than being surrounded by mountains. In my book, The Heart of the Mountains, the culture of the Appalachian people – isolated within their mountains with limited options for making a living – are naturally prone to developing and drinking alcohol because the nature of their environment sets them up for it. So then, how will this ‘culture’ impact my story?
The creation of a world comes from a big pot of possibilities, and each author attempts to evoke a reader’s imagination in different ways.
Second (and as important as the first) take an organic approach to revealing your setting
This may seem a no-brainer, but it’s definitely a shift in writing styles from the 1800s to now 😊Charles Dickens could spend an entire page describing a cobblestone sidewalk, but readers nowadays are going to skim over that type of intensive detail.
You do NOT have to tell everything you know about this setting in your book. In fact, please DON’T!! Highlight the best partsof your setting to build a sense of place, but not bog down your readers with details. Make the important stuff count.
The best way to do this is weave the setting into the action of the story, not use it as bookends to a page.
Master storyteller, Jerry Jenkins gives these two examples:
London in the 1860s was a cold, damp, foggy city crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and pedestrians carefully dodging the droppings of steeds that pulled all manner of public conveyance. One such pedestrian was Lucy Knight, a beautiful, young, unattached woman in a hurry to get to Piccadilly Circus. An eligible bachelor had asked her to meet him there.
I get the sense of setting, don you? It works, right?
But…Jenkins gives us an even BETTER way 😊
London’s West End, 1862
Lucy Knight mince-stepped around clumps of horse dung as she hurried toward Regent Street. Must not be late, she told herself. What would he think?
She carefully navigated the cobblestones as she crossed to hail a Hansom Cab – which she preferred for its low center of gravity and smooth turning. Lucy did not want to appear as if she’d been toseed about in a carriage, especially tonight.
“Not wearin’ a ring, I see,” the driver said as she boarded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nice lookin’ lady like yourself out alone after dark in the cold fog…”
“You needn’t worry about me, sir. I’m only going to the circus.”
“Picadilly, it is, Ma’am.”
Do we still get the same sense of setting? Yes, but we ALSO experience the story moving forward AND we get a little character introduction along with a tinge of suspense for icing on the cake.
Now there is nothing wrong with beautiful prose and descriptions, but they need to have meaningfor your story, not just be words on a page, so they don’t feel like a list of details. Also, if you’re going to give a longer, meaningful description, try to alternate it with some action or dialogue.
Thirdly, don’t forget the five senses.
When describing your setting, find ways to incorporate various types of senses so that the reader can experience the environment too. Of course, there’s an emotional feeling the setting can create, but there’s also sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. We usually don’t use them all at one time in a description, but it’s fun and interesting to try and find different ways to use them throughout the story.
Here’s an example from my novel, Laurel's Dream(a descriptive paragraph set within the center of a chapter).
Laurel hesitated only a second longer before she headed out the door and down the steep mountain path toward the church schoolhouse. The trees were only beginning to shift into autumn colors, with hickory and beech displaying their golden glints first. She breathed in the earth’s fragrance, still fresh from morning rain, a mixture of wild rose and moss. Sunlight created a patchwork against the leafy trail as it slit through the mature forest and led the way down the mountain. Small glimpses of horizon showed between the trees and offered an endless view to uncharted lands of colleges and city streets and millions of other things she’d only seen through the pages of books.
The important things about incorporating the senses is to keep it organic and relevant to the rest of the story.
As we need to do with almost everything else in story 😊
What are some books you’ve read lately that really took you to a different place? Where did you visit?
Leave your answer in the comments below for a chance to win a paperback copy of my upcoming release, The Cairo Curse (U.S. entrants only).
Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes romance “peppered” with grace and humor. Writing both historical and contemporary novels, she loves to incorporate her native Appalachian culture and/or her unabashed adoration of the UK into her stories. She currently resides in the lovely mountains of Asheville, NC where she is a wife, mom to five great kids, a speech-language pathologist, and a lover of chocolate, jazz, hats, and Jesus. Her novel, Hope Between the Pages, was a finalist for the prestigious Christy award. Pepper loves connecting with readers and other authors through social media outlets like Facebook &
You can learn more about Pepper and her books on her website at www.pepperdbasham.com