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The Magic of Setting!

Almost any book can be enhanced by a good setting.

Setting makes books cinematic. It has the potential to infuse every scene with vibrancy, with thrill and bite. It adds extra dimensions, fuels imagination, brings the written word to life.

When you pick a great setting, it can step out of the background and interact with your characters in compelling ways. At its best, setting can serve as an extra character, just as alive as your human ones.


I think of setting in two ways, which I'll call macrosetting and microsetting.


Macrosetting

Macrosetting refers to overall setting in a book. Hunger Games is set in a dystopian former United States. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is set in and around Chicago. Twilight is set in Forks, Washington. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is set in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested forest.

Creative macrosettings aren't necessary for every book. But I'm obsessed with them! My debut, Like Mandarin, is set in a small Wyoming town. My second book, Wanderlove, is set in Guatemala and Belize. My works-in-progress take place deep in the misty jungle and the arid red rock desert. Now that I've discovered what a complex, dynamic, extrasensory tool setting can be, I can't imagine I'll ever stop embracing it.

I travel quite a bit, which has given me the chance to familiarize myself with diverse settings. If you don't get the chance to travel often, knowing a location well enough to write about can be a trickier task. Even when you research a ton, you're afraid of getting something wrong. It's hard to set a book in a spooky Welsh village, for example, if you've never left North America. But that doesn't mean you can't!

The key to macrosetting:
location manipulation.

A.K.A., artistic license -- in this case, making up or changing a place to fit your needs. It can range from inventing a restaurant in Boston that doesn't exist to conjuring up an entire town. I do it all the time! In Like Mandarin, Washokey, Wyoming isn't real—it's a composite of several small towns I've known, and a heavy dose of pure imagining. A big portion of Wanderlove takes place on a Belizean island called Laughingbird Caye. The real Laughingbird is a tiny nature preserve. The island in my story is based on another island, hugely manipulated to fit my story.

This is our magic power as authors. We can make up not just people, but places, even when we're not writing fantasy.



Microsetting

Microsetting refers to the setting in each particular scene.

When you choose an unusual or vibrant macrosetting for your book, microsetting is much easier. Wanderlove takes place in Central America, and it's never a struggle to place the characters in vivid locations. Every conversation takes place somewhere striking, from a hammock in a rainforest hostel to a white sand beach at midnight.

However, authors writing stories with much more subdued macrosettings can—and should!—still think about microsetting as they write every single scene.


The key to microsetting:
asking yourself, Where can I put this scene to make it more interesting?


Maybe your book takes place in a suburban town just like your own. Not because you adore it, but because of the write-what-you-know mantra. Which is a good one, at least early on. But your town is boring! you might lament. It's like every other town! It's a microsetting fail!

Here's the thing. Your town might seem uninspiring to you, but can be utterly enthralling to readers from other towns, cities, countries. I've always lived in Southern California, and while others are fascinated by it—hello, MTV reality everything—I'm much more intrigued by other places. Not just India, Kenya and Turkey, but also coastal New England, the deep south, rural Iowa, London, Australia, New York City. Pretty much everywhere that isn't home!

Wherever you're from or familiar with, you have the power to take me there as a reader.

That's some crazy magic.

The best way to make microsetting compelling, I've found, is by coaxing out unique places and details. Bedrooms, classrooms, movie theaters, house parties—you can make them somewhat quirky, but in general, they're mostly the same. What about that alley filled with weird old junk? That abandoned diner? That makeout spot overlooking the water? That meadow where fireflies* glitter nightly?

Small-town Wyoming might seem boring to a Wyomingite, but I had no trouble finding beauty there. A conversation that might have taken place in a bedroom, I moved to an abandoned football field in the evening, with the wildwinds sweeping the bleachers. A party that could have taken place in someone's house, I moved to an abandoned quarry, supposedly haunted, with twin bonfires casting shadows onto the cliffs.

No matter where your story is located, you can find compelling places for conversations, interactions, minor and major-scale events. Pick out the best details, warp the others, and discard the rest.

Where's a macrosetting you'd love to place a story?
Where are some interesting microsettings in your real-life town or city?
What are the most memorable macro- and microsettings in books you've read?

all photos from stock exchange
*We don't have fireflies where I'm from. Tragic.
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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23 comments:

  1. Great post, I'm bookmarking this page!

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  2. I really love this post. Setting is a HUGE part of my novel--in fact, I wasn't even able to finish it until I had nailed down the perfect setting, which I spent a long time trying to find.

    During a university creative writing class, we had to write about our hometowns. I was convinced my story would be boring because everyone else in the class came from somewhere really cool and my hometown was just... you know... "normal". But when the class read my paper, they were in hysterics! Turns out a town that is so obsessed with volleyball that the welcome sign lists all the years they have won the state championship is really funny to people who don't live there!

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  3. What a great post! I never thought of it in micro- and macro settings. I'll keep it in mind next time I write a novel, or revise my novel, again.

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  4. Awwwwesome post.

    Best setting, best setting...recently, I'd have to say...late 70s Manhattan in WHEN YOU REACH ME and "hick town" Nebraska in THE SKY ALWAYS HEARS ME both come to mind first.

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  5. Oh goodness, and steampunk-ish London in SOULLESS. And gorgeous but threatening beach in THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE. And creepy-ass town of Gentry (and what's under it) in THE REPLACEMENT.

    *stops looking at Goodreads*

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  6. Kirsten, this post is packed with terrific information. I am a big setting junkie myself. Reading Incarceron now is fabulous, as I dive into new realms with such imaginative origins. Can we link this up for Friday's blog round-up? Thanks so much!

    Marissa

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  7. I loved this post, really inspiring. I've always thought you couldn't be as creative with settings if you weren't writing a fantasy novel but after reading this I’ve learned that thinking outside of the box is the key to making any scene magical, despite of genre:)

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  10. LOVE this post. I sort of want to get lost in all the amazing pictures posted here...
    Thinking about micro and macro setting is really going to change the way I revise. Genius, seriously. I have way too many scenes in bedrooms.
    Fav setting? I'm from the Northwest (and I miss it like woah), so when Forks, Washington was depicted in Twilight, I was really into it. I think the movies have done a fantastic job of bringing that eerie, old-growth forest vibe to life as well.

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  11. I think we have a lot in common. I'm a total travelaholic, so setting is very important to me too. My first novel basically couldn't take place if it weren't for the setting.

    I've always worried about using real settings because of the fear of having to keep them real. But I've seen a lot of books do the "small town outside big city" bit, where the big city is real and the small town isn't.

    I'm still learning though, and thanks for all your wisdom on the topic

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  13. Like your ideas here, and I agree, for scenes where conversations are important, the setting can breathe life into spots that are essentially exchanges of ideas or information. Where you choose to have it take place can and should have great contrast/highlight potential on the emotions of the MC, as well.

    You've mentioned a few settings I haven't already covered on my blog's setting thesaurus (abandoned quarry, etc), so I'm stealing them, lol!

    Great post!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  14. Let's see if it posts properly! I LOVE this post. I am very into setting too, as you know. :) Often, my plot ideas develop out of settings I think of first.

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  15. Whoa. AWESOME article! Thank you!

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  16. Great post. I'm linking it to my Friday's post (you know, in case someone doesn't see link at Adventures in Children's Publishing).

    I love creating my own towns based on places I've visited. Fortunately that list is extensive.

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  17. Great post. my favourite scene in my WIP is set in the reptile house at the National Zoo, in DC.

    As for settings I love, I adore Lyra's Oxford in Philip Pullman's books. Also the beach in Twenty Boy Summer (I can smell then ocean when I read that book) and the woods in Shiver and the river in The Secret Year.

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  18. Awesome post!

    It actually made me think more about my setting in my WIP, which is the Mojave Desert...currently.

    I'm going to definitely go look at my settings in all my works now to see if they are portrayed perfectly to the reader.

    Thanks for the info and write on!

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  19. Okay, as a Wyomingite, your Washokey has got me intrigued - esp. the twin bonfires in the abandoned quarry - that's very cool. Can't help but wonder what Wyoming towns you have visited. Definitely going to check out your book now, too.

    Setting is so rarely talked about by writing bloggers, and I think it's so important. And I loved the pictures you chose to go along with it! I have been trying to collect pictures of my settings too, to help me get more visual and specific with my writing.

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  20. I so agree with you on this. I struggle with this now more than ever--or perhaps I'm not giving myself enough credit.

    Once upon a time, I saturated my stories with detail setting. I loved describing the rain-scented air, the mist covered waterfall, the fireflies glowing beneath the dark brush at night.

    But, after doing much studying with writing rules, I learned not to bog the story down with infodumping. UGH!!

    Where's a happy medium?

    I think I might be finally coming around to it where I add just enough to entice the reader, but not so much that it steals the stage from my MCs.

    Thanks for this great post, I appreciate it! :)

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  21. Thanks Kirsten, Andrea just sent me this article to help me with my NanoWrimo story!

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Item Reviewed: The Magic of Setting! Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard