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Where in the World?

Setting is a character. It can be a friend, foe, or antagonist. It lives and breathes. It can set the tone and atmosphere. It can create obstacles or remove them.

The last series I wrote took a year to research (pre-written-history Greece). I took some liberties with it, given there is no documentation. My current novel is set in Victorian England and will involve a vast amount of research. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.

There are a number of ways to approach the setting for your book. Contemporary settings and real locations are probably the easiest, but that does not let you off the hook when it comes to research.

1) You can use a real place.

This requires that you research the place in question. You can use Google maps as a start or visit the town if you want to be precise. It gets trickier the further from home you go. If you choose a foreign country, you need to thoroughly research it to get the feel for how the people think, operate, dress, speak, and move about. The pitfall is using what I call "cultural shorthand" to describe it. People who don't live there won't know what Bob's diner looks like or where the Louvre is. So it's important to describe the place well. Even if you pick a well-known locale, describe it as if you are seeing the streets for the first time. If you have never been there, you will have to use your imagination to fill in the details of how it feels, smells, tastes, and sounds. You can research books, blogs, etc. written by residents of the  place in question.

2) You can use a real place and change the name.

The fun here is you get to name it Madeuptown and plop it in the Midwest. The pitfall of this is that not all Midwestern towns are the same. You still need to invent the details. You can pick an existing town and rename all the businesses and redecorate the town to your taste. The buildings can be clapboard or brick. The streets can be poorly paved or cobblestones. The streets can have gaslights. The countryside can have quaint cottages. If you are thinly disguising the town where you live, others might recognize it. They will feel very clever.

3) You can create a new town, state, or country.

Create a city in a state or country that doesn't exist (many British cozy series invent areas of England unless they are set in London). You should do some research into the state and the nearest biggest city to get a feel for it, but you can make it look and operate any way you like.

4) You can write about an entirely different world.

Placing it in the fantasy or sci-fi realm is a ton of work. For every nugget you include in your story, you have hundreds of details. World-building is tedious hard work. You have to invent who they are, how their world looks, feels, smells, and tastes like. You have to invent the government, commerce, travel, dress, morals, religions, languages, history, manners, etc.

5) You can keep it vague.

Some writers like to keep all descriptions vague so the reader can insert their own ideas. I personally hate that method. I like rich detail. When writers don't describe their main characters or the setting, which I consider an important character, it feels empty and unsatisfying. Some readers don't mind. Some readers prefer it.

The type of setting you choose affects the genre and sub-genre of your book. It is the difference between contemporary romance and historical romance.

Setting can attract or repel readers. If a reader dislikes stories set in World War II or Ancient Egypt, they might pass on it, no matter how well written your book is. Other readers will scoop up anything set in a quaint English village.

Setting can also provide promotion and marketing tie-ins. If your tale is set during the Civil War and features the Underground Railroad, you could approach the Underground Railroad tourist venues to ask if they would like to host a book signing, perhaps sell the book in their bookstore. If your beach read features a specific tropical hot spot, you could set up book signings there and write the vacation off as a business expense.

Choose the setting that works best for your story, preferably one that you would enjoy writing. If you love it, someone else out of the seven billion people worldwide will love it too.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Great points, Diana. I would go a step further and say I like settings from which the author has selected details specific to that story. Meaning, not every story set in San Francisco need include Lombard Street. Used judiciously, setting can so effectively be used to evoke the emotional undercurrent of the story.

  2. I LOVE reading about my home town, Los Angeles, in Michael Connelly's and Robert Crais' books. It's fun to go to the Farmer's Market with Harry Bosch. But with one exception, I used the "based on real places but not exactly" so I can take liberties with details.
    Terry's Place

  3. Although you personally dislike an unnamed setting, it is often a boon to a story. Detail does not demand knowledge of place. The reader can become intimately familiar with a garden without knowing where it lies. Sometimes it just doesn't matter.

    1. As long as they make the garden real to me, I'm okay not knowing in which geographic location it resides. That said, a garden on the island of Hawaii will be very different from a garden in Arizona or Iceland.

  4. If it weren't for Google Maps, my last tome would still be ... um ... on the runway.

  5. I'm a big fan of "place" as character. The more I know about it, the more it comes alive, the more rooted I am in the story. I think this is especially important in series writing.

    1. And in series, it's important to make notes so you're consistent. Is the police station next to, across from, or in the same building as the mayor's office?

  6. I can go either way — detailed place or simply background place that gives way to more detailed characters . . . or both. For me, writing quality trumps all else, and it will provide sufficient detail in all areas for me to visualize the story.

  7. I agree with Terry; I've made maps of villages and floor plans of houses so rooms, buildings, etc. stop migrating.


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