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Writing Where You Know: Visiting Your Settings

Contemplating Rouen Cathedral, a major
landmark in one of my projects.
The setting is often one of my favorite characters in a book, when written well. I love an atmospheric setting that has a certain mood, or when an author drops setting tidbits in that, at first, seem subtle or even unnecessary, but that serve to draw me further into the story and make me feel, not only like I’m there with the characters, but that I have some inside knowledge into the place the characters’ story is unraveling. A great setting can make a good book become one that I will praise to the skies.

When I was putting the final touches on Nobody But Us, I decided to drive the route Will and Zoe, my main characters, drove in the final stretches of the story. These are characters for whom “place” has complications. For whom “home” isn’t easy to point to. Whose every glance is an assessment: is this where we stop? Is this our new salvation? I had been to most of the other setting in the book, but this section was important to me. It was gratifying to see this place that had become so familiar in my mind, and yet was unknown. I searched for details: if a certain gas station was really as remote as I thought, where along the road a car could veer out onto the desert when so many places were protected by roadside ditches, how the desert was a mix of gravel and boulder and just a little sand, the shapes and thickness of scrub brush.

More recently, I spent this summer in Europe. My current project takes place in France and, like with Nobody But Us, I’d already visited several of the settings. I could draw from my experiences to make those places richer and more intimate for my reader. Rouen, however, was one I hadn’t yet got to. It holds a special place for my characters, so I knew I needed to go. My time in Rouen was not only personally enjoyable, but I discovered things that will make my story truer. Even though it’s an old city, the damage it took during WWI means it was rebuilt and looks more modern than I’d expected. The church dedicated to Joan of Arc looks different in person than in pictures. Lunchtime sights and smells were different than I’d imagined. I don’t think never visiting Rouen would detract from the story, but I definitely believe that being there improves it.

The difference between Google Street View and being there is in the details, and it’s the details that bring the setting the life. It’s the air—the scent and sounds—in a cathedral. It’s knowing the way the sunrise is washed against the sky in the desert, or how it feels to drive for a long time on a straight road that becomes a wet-textured mirage in the distance. It’s feeling the temperature of morning on my skin, and how by midday all semblance of coolness has faded into dry heat. These are details I want to share with my readers, and details I want other writers to share with me. Let me in on the secrets of your setting, let me dive in to the busy and beautiful story that surrounds and cushions your main plot.

Now I know how that air smells, what
it sounds like, how it feels.
A good setting becomes great when it invites me in. It’s that elegant style that both tells me everything I need to know while, at the same time, assuming that I already know everything. Because I belong, I’m one of the insiders. A deft writing hand knows this and trusts me to pick up setting clues. I know how people talk in small towns, and that’s why it makes sense when a character raises an eyebrow at the mention of a specific name. I know how busy a city can be, so that’s why I emphasize when a character becomes overwhelmed by too much noise, too fast a pace.

Even fictional settings can get a dose of depth and wonder from real-life counterparts. I think about Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series and how her Russian-influenced world is rich with challenging landscapes, furs and folklore—all part of the setting. So even if you can’t drive or fly to your setting, dig deep into the world you have created with maps (even scribbles, if you’re not an artist), inspiration boards, menus and fashion. Create pinpoint locations that hold something special: a crossroads, a tree with crooked limbs, a wind that only blows east one day a year.

But if you can drive or fly to your setting? Try to make it work. It’s a delightful thing to know the exact places your characters have walked. It’s gratifying to be able to convey those very particular details to your reader. Do you travel to your settings? Which have been the most eye-opening?

Happy travels!

~Kristin H.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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Item Reviewed: Writing Where You Know: Visiting Your Settings Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook