Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Building Storyland, 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 01•23

Place matters. With your opening words the setting signals readers that they’ve now entered storyland. Signals readers that a story— part wonder, part participation located in an ordinary or treasured or troubled realm⎼⎼is unfolding. It means readers will have a place to  land and settle in.

And setting helps categorize fiction–urbanfantasy, westerns,  Lovecraftian, dark fantasy, high fantasy, magical realism, gothic, horror, police procedural, cozy–the list is long.

Broadly defined, setting is the location of the plot and includes geography, region, townships and cities, neighborhood, buildings, and interiors. Setting also refers to the passage of time, tone and the atmosphere of the story. Place is often layered into every scene and flashback and includes climate, weather, lighting, season, month, day, and hour. Setting and its various moods permeates scenes–because not only the actions and characters’ emotions color fiction.

Your storyworld is not a mere backdrop for action; it can create physical obstacles and saturate fiction with tension, mood, and thematic connotations. And can scare the bejusus out of your readers.

When readers experience the setting via the viewpoint character they feel part of the story. Because readers need to connect to the place–or loathe it–along with your characters.

Writers have endless choices when it comes to creating a story world.

  • Real place or imagined place.
  • The present, past, future, or a combination.
  • City, small town, suburbia, rural areas, forests, deserts, jungles, mountain ranges, grizzly country, seaside village, space or distant planets, or parallel worlds.
  • Normal circumstances or highly abnormal circumstances. War, coup, peace, plenty, famine, drought, heat wave, a dystopian nightmare.
  • One main setting, multiple settings, road trip, quest. The ‘real’ world merged with a magical world.

11-year-old Ann Evans of Aberdare, south Wales, the world hula hoop marathon champion

Tip: Choose a setting that fascinates you or has personal connections.

If you’re going to set a novel in a real place, in a real time, your readers deserve ironclad accuracy. If the key scenes in your memoir take place in 1960, acquaint yourself with the main events of that year–the first televised presidential debated, the election of John F. Kennedy for example. Or Elvis leaving the army and the birth control pill was approved. Know the fashions, fads, culture. Did your family embrace TV dinners, salads,  hula hoops, and beehive hairstyles? Watch the Ed Sullivan Show?  Did your home have TV trays?

Will Scottish history be referenced as it in is Diana Gabaldon’s time traveling Outlander series? If your historical takes place in a drafty Scottish castle in the 1700s you’ll research Scotland’s turbulent history, including Cromwell’s invasion in 1650, the clans associated with the region, and how the fortifications worked. Learn about the Jacobite uprising, James the Pretender, births and deaths of royals, along with major battles. If your story takes place after 1746 and the Dress Act, readers will learn that after their defeat Culloden, Scots were reined in to avoid future uprisings and no longer allowed to wear Highland tartans. The law was repealed in 1782, but if your story takes place during the previous 35 years, animosities might still be running hot.  Historical fiction is but one genre where the conflict is rooted in the setting.

Your research will reveal what the laird and lady ate, what was involved in provisioning the household, and how the seasons affected the household. Stir in alliances, kinships, and trading partners. Add knights, bowmen, stewards, What about cooks, blacksmiths, carpenters, midwives, laundress, candle makers, and weavers?  Were the children educated? And what about fortifications?  How were goods delivered? Are there kitchen gardens, a distillery, a nearby woods for hunting? What about cattle? Tenant farmers, peasants, and crofters?

Not all your research will end up on the page, but that’s okay. Get it right.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


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