Tag: Writing Realistic Settings

#Amwriting October 13: Setting in Layers

In our final post about setting for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation, let’s discuss how to show setting in your novel.


Setting is something that you should reveal early in the novel, preferably on the first page or even along with your character in the first few sentences. How you do so will depend on your character’s familiarity with their surroundings and what tone/mood you want to convey.

Setting in Layers

We haven’t discussed point of view yet, but it pays to keep it in mind when considering how to include setting.

Did you look into the Onion Theory of Characters from our previous post on protagonists? In review, the idea is that how someone describes someone else depends on their relationship. If one person sees another in a store that she doesn’t know, she will describe that person superficially, that is by what they look like, what they are wearing, etc. A colleague will understand more about a character, such as where they went to school, what kind of car they drive, and how often they are late to work. A character’s mom, on the other hand, can reveal truly deep and hidden things about them. So, the longer they know someone, the deeper their understanding goes.

I recently read the novel Devices and Desires by P. D. James and realized someone’s relationship with setting will lead to the opposite in terms of description. In her book, the protagonist Commander Adam Dalgliesh is visiting the Norfolk coast to settle his aunt’s estate. Because he just arrived, he notices many things with fresh eyes. He looks out the window and describes the surrounding land and the houses of his neighbors in detail. Another character, who has been there a bit over a year, notices the things that are different or what has changed since last time she looked. The characters who have lived there forever hardly notice the setting at all. Yes, they know the setting intimately, but they don’t register it as a newcomer would.

How do you use this revelation?

If your character is in a familiar place, consider what they might notice. They would probably note the lighting, which changes daily and possibly the temperature of the room. They would definitely look at the new piece of art they put up the day before or the bulletin board they cleaned off. Maybe they would register the smell of cleaning supplies if they cleaned the bathroom or the lingering odor of the garlic bread from lunch. The bottom line is that they would pay attention to the things new or different from the day before.

What do you do if you need a deeper description of a place than your main character would realistically supply?

1. Create a character who has never visited the setting you want to describe. You don’t necessarily have write the scene from their point of view, but you can have the novice character ask about things she or he sees or hears, bringing the setting into a conversation.

Example:  In a recent television series, the protagonist invited a woman to his apartment for the first time. She immediately commented on the flashing neon sign outside the window, which he didn’t even register. He explained that was why his rent was so cheap, revealing something about his economic status.

2. Have your main character have a flashback, allowing them to describe a scene from when they might have first encountered it, as well as the emotions linked to the events that happened at that time.

“He remembered it from his childhood…on those long dark afternoons in winter before the Sunday school was released, when the outside light was fading and the small Adam Dalgliesh was already dreading those last twenty yards of his walk home, where the rectory drive curved and the bushes grew thickest. Night was different from bright day, smelled different, sounded different; ordinary things assumed different shapes; an alien and more sinister power ruled the night. Those twenty yards of crunching gravel, where the lights of the house were momentarily screened, were a weekly horror.”

As you might suspect, the chilling fear this passage evokes has to do with other things that are going on in the story, namely some grisly murders. Adult Adam would not express those feelings, but childhood Adam could.


Go to a familiar place that might serve as a setting for your novel. Spend some time taking in the details, making sure to consider all the senses. Write down what you notice first, second, third. Describe the place. How does it make you feel?

Now, if possible, visit a place you’ve never been before. Again, look, listen, smell, touch. What do you notice first, second, third? Write a description. Include how the new place makes you feel.

Go back to your notes a few days later. Do you notice and similarities in how you described the places? How about differences?

Tip:  If you are writing science, speculative, historical fiction or fantasy, Writing Excuses podcasts has a slew of information about world building. Unfortunately the episodes are listed under two separate tags which will give you different resullts: Worldbuilding (one word) and World Building (two words).

For example, for historical, one episode gives a great suggestion of printing out a calendar from the year your novel is set in order to develop your timeline. Yes, there are old calendars online.



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 12: Setting at Home and Work

You should have already chosen your overall setting for your NaNoWriMo novel. Now let’s plan the specifics of where your protagonist lives and works.

Once again, the work you need to do for your setting will depend on your genre, but here are some general suggestions.

Where does your main character call home?

Where does your main character sleep and eat? Do they live in a home, apartment, spaceship, or are they homeless? What does where they live say about your character?

If you are writing speculative fiction, historical fiction, or fantasy, it is time to do some serious world building. It is possible to use some of the techniques for developing a contemporary setting to help you create your otherworldly one.

Ask some questions.

  • What kind of architecture is appropriate for the time and place?
  • What sort of building materials are used?
  • When were the homes built?

Research contemporary places to live.

  1. Visit real estate websites. These days you can take a virtual tour of homes anywhere in the world. Pick some locations in the area you’ve chosen as a setting and see where your main character should live.
  2.  Take screenshots or download images to record the look of the home.
  3. If there’s one available, download a blueprint. Otherwise, draw your own rough house plan to keep on file. You don’t want your bathroom to be upstairs in one chapter and downstairs in the next.

This is a public domain floor plan of an historic house.

Have fun with this part. Add furniture and amenities. You can even decide your character’s decor, down to the art on the wall, the style of coffee maker, and color of the fridge.

Where does your main character work?

Your characters will likely spend more time at work than at home. Plan the spaces accordingly, using some of the same tools as above. For example, if your character works in a police station, use Google Maps to see what the police stations in that setting look like.

Other tips:

Write down details you love from places you visit. Love the brushed metal door at the library? Take a photo with your phone and write down how the sound it makes  when it closes.  Does the mid-century modern house in the neighborhood catch your eye? Convert it into the office where your character works and add your favorite landscaping.

My main character has a service job that takes her into other people’s homes as well as businesses. I will need to nail down a few of the spaces she visits regularly.

Other places your character visits.

Do your characters have hobbies? Run regularly in the park? Meet (pre-Covid) on Wednesday nights at the library or local community center?

Start a running list of these places and what the spaces look like. You might even start a map of the town or city where your main character lives, marking the places she visits most often.


You likely won’t use all or even many of the details you develop, but this preparation will come in handy when you begin to write scenes.

How is your setting planning going? Do you have any tips?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 3: Exploring Your Setting

The next step in our series about preparing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is to consider your setting.


Why work on setting so early?

Some of you may be wondering why you should tackle setting so early in preparation. Isn’t it simply wallpaper behind the story?

Setting is a vital part of a novel. A good, concrete setting grounds the reader and can be a key element in driving the story. By evoking memories and feelings, it can influence the mood (think Hawaii versus Alcatraz.) You need to orient your readers to place and time right in the beginning of the book.

If the setting is from another era or a different world, such as for speculative fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction,  it will be critical to spend time worldbuilding before you put the first word on the page.



Start with brainstorming. Don’t forget to include time as well as place. Is the story going to be contemporary, historical or take place in the future? What year will your story be set in? How long does it last? Is all the action finished in 24 hours or 24 years? If your story idea feels like it is jelled, jot down a rough timeline.

Do you want to have your characters stay in one place or travel widely?  How are your characters going to react to the place? Do they love it or can’t wait to get away? How can the physical location add to the story? Can they do their job in that location?

Think about places you’ve lived, visited, or want to visit and jot them down. You are going to be living with the setting you choose for a long time if you write a novel, so pick one that you can be passionate about. It can help to choose a familiar time and place because you already know how it looks, smells, and sounds, but in reality, anything goes.


For contemporary novels, once you have an idea of place(s), investigate them. Look at maps and search the internet. Ideally, you should visit the location(s), but that isn’t as easy as it once was. For specific suggestions, see my previous post, Seven Awesome Internet Tools for Writing Realistic Settings.

If you are thinking of historical fiction, Anne R. Allen has tips for historical writers that will help get you started (thanks Shan).

Science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy can be more challenging. A resource that can help with worldbuilding is Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook (Revised and Expanded): The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction*. I recommend it not so much for the text — although it can give you some useful tips — but more for the incredibly imaginative illustrations that will be sure to jump start your creativity. See the cover, for example.

(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

If you a creating your own world, get familiar with some of the random place name generators. Mithril Mages has a bunch of name generators, including a Natural Terrain Feature Name GeneratorMuddles also has random name and place generators.

Tip:  Be sure to save the information you uncover. Make a list of links you visit, take screenshots of locations, save articles either as PDF or print or both.  You can save your research notes in a folder, in Scrivener,  or if you are going to use a three-ring binder, now is the time to begin organizing it. Start a tab for “setting.”

Write a Description

Before you finish for the day, write a brief description of your setting.

If you are stuck, try this helpful PDF mind map template for a descriptive essay about place from EslFlow.

What setting(s) did you choose?


I wish my novel could be set here, but it wouldn’t fit the story.

Tomorrow: The Antagonist – What or whom your protagonist is struggling with.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

Seven Awesome Internet Tools for Writing Realistic Settings

Having a concrete setting in your novel helps orient the reader and can be used to establish the tone, but how do you go about writing realistic settings if your main character travels the world — while you stay at home — or lives in a place far from where you reside?

The answer is research. I’ve made a list of 7 internet tools that can be used to build accurate, realistic settings for novels. To help explore the potential of each tool, let’s run through an example of a novel set on Coronado Island, California, USA.

Tools for Writing Realistic Settings:

1. Google Earth

Google Earth has different versions. You can download a version onto your desktop computer, an app to your Android device, or use it on the web via Google’s Chrome browser (the web-based version doesn’t currently work in other browsers).

Google Earth gives you three dimensional maps that can be an airplane view or a bird’s eye view of a particular location. Many maps are supplemented with videos, guided tours, etc.

Google Earth is particularly helpful for giving you the overall lay of the land, so you know where to stage a romantic picnic for your characters.  Or hide a body, if it is a mystery novel.

2. Google Maps

Chances are you’ve used Google Maps  to find directions to a restaurant or shoe store or your friend’s house. But have you used all its features for writing realistic settings?

(Screenshot used for educational/discussion purposes).

When you first type in a name or address, you will get this map view. See the satellite view in the lower left corner? Click on that for an overall view. Also, see the little yellow guy on the bottom right corner? You can use your mouse to drag him into the map for a street view of a particular location.


I plopped him right on the beach, as you can see in the window on the bottom left hand corner.  You can move around at street level and see detailed landmarks. Get an accurate idea of vegetation, architecture, and more. It’s a blast!

Once you have the general details, you may want to return to the map for specific scenes. You can even calculate how long it would take your character to drive from place to place.

3. Wolfram Alpha for Weather

According to Google Maps, that above image was taken in July, 2016. What if you want to set your story in January 1968?  What weather would your characters experience?

Luckily, you can look up historical and current weather information for a given location at Wolfram Alpha. According to my search, it was clear and sunny like this 30% of the time in January in 1968 and the average high was 68° F. It also reveals which days were cloudy, which were foggy, and what the percentages were.

4. SunCalc.Org

Want to send your characters out to have a picnic at sunrise? You can find out what time that would be on a given day and place, where the sun would be in the sky, etc.

5. YouTube Videos

As a writer, you know to add sensory information to make a place more vivid. YouTube videos can help you add both images and sounds to your descriptions.

Although I found videos from Coronado with traffic noise and dogs panting, this would be good for a sunrise at the beach scene.

Don’t forget to include the cultural setting  as well as the physical one. Do the locals have an dialect or accent? Do they celebrate certain holidays?  YouTube can help with those, too.

In My Defens has compiled a wonderful list of videos that feature ambient sounds from different settings that are perfect to listen to while writing. I often use them to drown out background noise.

6. Snap map

This is a pretty new app that allows you to see brief  Snapchat videos that anonymous users have posted at a given location. It is oddly addicting and also an fantastic source of ideas and inspiration.

Add a location to the search box. Once the map comes up, click on the colored areas that indicate hot spots. Even if there aren’t any, sometimes clicking on a location of interest will yield a video or two. When I checked Coronado Island, I found a young woman’s selfie video taken at the beach hours before. You could hear the waves and wind. Her looks, clothing, and what she said were great clues to cultural setting.

Try a few locations and times to get a good idea of Snap Map‘s full potential.

7.  Wikipedia

Be sure to utilize the awesome power of Wikipedia, especially since articles are often edited by people with ties to a given location. In addition to information about geography and history of a given place (for example, Coronado), it also offers lists like regional cuisine in the US, regional dialects (check different languages), etc. The links to references can be invaluable, too.


Of course, travel blogs and social media can also help fill in details of a particular setting. Just keep in mind travel blogs which used to be someone’s clunky personal diary of a trip, now may be highly-curated articles and images sponsored by (paid for by) local tourist attractions. If you do manage to find an authentic one, don’t be afraid to ask the blogger or poster questions about local flavor.

With a good sense of place in your mind through careful research, you can cherry-pick specific experiences and details to create a concrete, powerful setting unique to your novel.

What tools did you try? Do you use any others? We’d love to hear about them.

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