Oct 26, 2011

setting as a character

Today, in my writerly writing post, I’m going to address something that I’ve come to realize over the course of my past two manuscripts. Place is important. Where your story is set is an incredibly significant detail.
You see, place is more than just a place. Place is a character. Where you set your novel can affect the mood, the language and the tone. It can make your novel distinct and set it apart. My agent says in her “what I’m looking for” list that she loves “settings tilled with strong regional flavors.” I would say that I have to agree with her. I’m much more drawn to a story that has a unique and well-described setting. So many novels take place in high schools and small towns—it’s the ones set in unique places that I’m most likely to remember. Katie Crouch and the dynamic duo Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl do a wonderful job of bringing the South to life in their novels. Though their characters go to school like every other American teenager, their experiences and stories are tinged with the flavor of the South (“Hey, y’all!”).
I think one of the reasons that place has become such an important aspect of my writing is because of my love for traveling. I know that not everyone gets the opportunity to fly around the world and experience different cultures and landscapes. I’ve been very blessed with the opportunities and resources to see a lot of foreign countries, eat all kinds of crazy foods (nevermind that I’ve had food poisoning thrice. We don’t speak of that…) and meet tons of amazing people. When I was twenty-two I was determined to drag my husband along with me on a three-week Eurotrip (Believe it or not he didn’t want to go. He thought Europe was just art galleries.). My father-in-law said something to this effect: “You’re going for writing research aren’t you.” This comment took my by surprise. I wasn’t going for writing research. I was going to eat. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided to shove away the experiences in my mind. I didn’t intend to write a book based on my experiences in Europe. But it was only because I’d been to Europe that I was brave enough to write a book based in London. When I moved to South Korea people asked me if I was going to write a book about my experiences there. I told them the truth: probably not. Will my experiences in South Korea show up in my writing? Undoubtedly. I don’t know when, or how, but I can almost guarantee that it will.
What are some places that you absolutely love? What are places that inspire you? For me, it’s impossible to count all such places on a single hand. I’ve already centered projects around two of them: London and Charleston. There are so many more countries and cities that I want to feature in my writing. I don’t know if I’ll have the time or the space to fit them all! This being said, I think it would be cool to do a mini blog series on different places I’ve been and how they inspire me. I’ll get on that.
So my challenge to those of you who are writers is this—treat your setting like a character. Give it depth and detail. Let it become an inseparable part of your story. Don’t be afraid to commit to a place, even if you’ve never lived there or spent a huge amount of time in it.
Readers—what are some books that you love because of where they’re set? Do you have any?


  1. Hi. I'm a new follower--found you on QT! I totally agree, and yet it's hard to pick the right setting and then describe it fully so that every scene is drenched in the setting but never obviously so. I love traveling too, so maybe I should think about how my love of travel can cross over more into my writing. As far as settings go, I never know what's going to get under my skin, maybe it's anywhere that got under the author's skin.

  2. Hello Ramblinbess! I know what you mean by getting things to cross over into your writing. I didn't know how to integrate my travels and writing either for the longest time! I think the biggest thing is that it shouldn't be forced. It should be organic within the story.

  3. Love this post! Sense of place is one of my favorite aspects of writing, and I agree, it definitely makes your setting into a fabulous character. My current novel takes place in Alaska, and I pour tons of my personal experiences into it. The story almost feels like a long song to Alaska now, and I hope I can keep this up as I write other novels in other places.

  4. Ooh, Alaska? I would love to go visit! It's on my bucket list to see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately I live way too far south for them.