by Jemi Fraser
Creating a realistic setting is important to your story. Settings ground the reader and help the story make sense. If you don't have enough information, it can frustrate the reader. Inconsistencies in the setting can throw a reader right out of the story. We don't want that!
In some cases, the setting can almost become a character—especially if you're writing fantasy or anything under the speculative fiction umbrella. It influences characters' actions and decisions.
As writers, we must create worlds that are vivid and real in our readers' minds. This doesn't only apply to fantasy. No matter the time frame or the geographical place, we need our readers to feel as if they could step right into the world and interact with the characters.
I'm sure I've mentioned before I'm not a big fan of reading or writing extended descriptive passages. I tend to skim them when I'm reading, skip too many of them when I'm writing. I invariably have to go back into my drafts and add sensory information.
I'm still learning how to do this well with settings, but here's what I've learned so far.
The first time a character sees an important place (whether it's a planet, a city or a house), it's okay to let the reader see it as well, but don't drag it out. Hit the highlights—what makes it special, or horrible, or ordinary. Focus only on what is relevant to your story and to your character. If it's not new to the character, he/she probably won't really notice it, and certainly won't focus on it. So keep it realistic—only see what the character would see and notice.
Instead of always describing the new place, objects in that place can give great clues and hints to setting without making me feel as if I've got to write another description. A lamp sporting a chipped hula dancer base and pom pom fringed shade will tell you what the rest of the hotel room looks like without having to get into too much detail. I've been doing this more with my Steampunk where I can focus on the tinkerings and things that make the setting Steampunk rather than merry old England. Hopefully it gives the reader a visual.
I'm also finding it fun to use the other senses to describe the setting, and not relying completely on what the characters see. That hotel room from the previous paragraph certainly has its own odor—look for a unique way to describe it too. Musty works, but it's an ordinary description—stretch for something better.
In a nighttime forest, it might be scarier to describe the sounds the character hears—or doesn't—than to describe visuals. I'm not great with using taste yet, food hasn't been that important in my stories so far. Texture is a lot of fun to work with though—especially when my characters are hiding in those alleys in Steampunk London or in the horse barn in my romantic suspense.
If you've set your story in a real place, you need to be careful. For me, I don't think I could set a story in a city I didn't know well. The internet is a wonderful invention, but I don't find it enough. I want to know the feel of a place, the rhythm, the pace. I want to know the people. Is this a city where you make eye contact with strangers, where people throw trash in the gutters, or where people don't use blinkers because everyone knows where they're going?
I'm impressed with people who pull this off without knowing the city. I've set one of my contemporary romantic suspense stories in an unnamed US city. I don't name it because I don't know any US cities well enough to set it there, yet it's important to the story that it be in the States. I'm hoping I'm able to pull it off without people saying, "Where in the heck are we???"
In a middle grade idea I've been toying with, the setting is a newly discovered planet. If I go ahead with it, the setting will be vital to the story—and I'm going to have to weave in a lot of details without bogging down the narrative. Should be fun!
So, those are some of the tips I've learned to make the setting real for your readers. What else can you suggest?