how to write settings: write what you know

by - January 24, 2022

 Hello, guys! I needed some ideas for posts for this year (ideas are nonexistent, hahaha) so I thought I'd sit down and puzzle through something that's really been getting into my head lately: settings. We focus so much, in writing, on the story, the plot, the characters, the emotions--but how much time do we spend on setting? 

I've always felt like setting is crucial to a story. Especially as I'm watching more TV shows, I'm starting to see that. I'll probably do a post down the line about stories that use setting as a character and how important that is for fantasy worlds, but that's for another day. For right now, I'm going to start with one of my favorite topics: writing what you know.

Especially in settings, this is SO important. I struggle deeply with visualizing my stories thanks to my lack of a visual imagination. However, what I can do is go find a photo of somewhere I've been. Somewhere I can see in front of me. Somewhere I have memories of. Here are some reasons for that:

1. If you've been somewhere, you'll automatically immerse the reader in it when you write about it.

For instance: this past summer I went to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It was a glorious trip and I have photos of it allover my walls and my phone. If I close my eyes and think about it, I remember the moments those photos were taken. I can feel the sun hot against my skin. I can see the storm clouds rolling in, casting shadows deep into the coral canyon walls. I can remember how tiny I felt standing on top of that deep, deep gully. I remember peering over the handrail and, because of perspective, thinking that there's no way the bottom is a mile down. But then you see the river snaking its way through the canyon, the tiny bridge crossing it like the size of a matchbox car, and you realize: that is, in fact, a full-size bridge. That river is huge, not a spool of thread. And you are tiny, tiny, tiny, staring at majesty you can never fully comprehend.

The most beautiful places we've been have the most amazing memories, and a lot of those times those memories come with all five senses. You can remember what you saw, but also what you heard, tasted in the air, smelled from the wind, and felt. There's a beauty to memory that translates to the page, even if it's only just from your own excitement. Excitement will ALWAYS count as a good reason. Set the story somewhere you love, somewhere beautiful. Write about a place that brings you joy and makes you happy.

2. You cannot invent, out of your own mind, a truly amazing setting.

Obviously there are some exceptions to this rule, but I'm of the firm opinion that every truly amazing setting is the result of mashing up several different real-world locations, perhaps with a couple of added elements. If you're setting a book on Mars, you're still drawing inspiration from what you know, where you've been before. The best settings are grounded in reality.

So don't try to purely invent the Grand Canyon. Use parts of what you've seen there. Pull together the Grand Canyon and, perhaps, snow instead of a desert. Set your story in a world full of sand and snow alike. Just remember: You will never outdo the Great Creator in coming up with worlds. It's always worth it to draw inspiration from the most beautiful places you've been. 

3. Using a unique real-world setting for a fantasy story will make your fantasy story more unique.

Think of your favorite fantasy book. Now think of the setting. So many of the ones I've read, even if I love them, have pretty generic settings: a generic forest. A generic desert. A generic ocean. The stereotypical Disney-style fantasy city. 

What's one that has an amazing setting, where the setting MATTERS as more than a mere backdrop? Think of that story. Now think about how important the setting is in your story. Could your world be more fascinating, more helpful to the story, if you made it a little more unique than Ye Olde English Forest and Tavern?

4. You're probably not an architect, so basing a building on a real place makes your houses instantly cooler.

I LOVE big, old mansions. Where I live there are dozens of them within a several hour radius, so I've been to so many, and they're my favorite places to visit. In several of my books, I've needed a mansion for the characters to live in, and it only makes sense to drop one of those mansions into the pages of my story. 

You might not have thought of a sweeping staircase on either side of the foyer made of marble, but somebody who built houses in the 1800s did. You might not have visualized a cupola on top of the house with a widow's walk too narrow for anyone to truly walk on, but a builder did. A three-story kitchen? Would've never occurred to me, but almost every old mansion had one. Bringing together pieces of old houses is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. I love setting stories in big, old houses solely so I can bring in my knowledge of mansions.

That doesn't just have to apply to mansions, either! If you're writing something futuristic, find some cutting-edge Silicon Valley homes to apply to the story. If you're writing about the suburbs, pick your best friend's house and neighborhood and base it off that. Why go with a generic location when you could just go with somewhere real that will instantly lend both credibility and uniqueness to your story?

That's the gist of it, folks. The best locations, the most memorable, are the ones we can see and feel and touch in our minds. In part 2, I'll talk about some more ways to make your locations memorable, but for now: adios!

What are your favorite fantasy locations? Conversely, what are your favorite real-world locations? Chat with me in the comments ^_^

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  1. Lovely post. Settings are so important. I pulled the setting of Bent Ridge together based off a few small towns in Texas and its so important to have that realistic aspect!!

    1. I LOOOOVE Bent Ridge--you do this so well and it feels so real!


    I also struggle something fierce with coming up with unique settings and visuals. I definitely spend a ridiculous amount of time on Pinterest getting inspiration. XD But I LOVE the idea of really using the places you've been. Especially houses! That is a brilliant idea right there.


    "You will never outdo the Great Creator in coming up with worlds." <--- YES. That is so true! We may all dream of going to fantasy lands but, MY GOODNESS, our God created the most wondrous universe. Why do we feel the need to go somewhere else when we already live in a magical place? There is an infinite source of inspiration here!

    Such great advice! Thank you for sharing! <3

    1. Pinterest settings are easily the greatest thing of ALL time, my dude. We love it.

      And yes! I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to travel but I think sometimes we don't see the forest for the trees, to use a metaphor that I've been fond of lately.

      Thank you!!!

  3. Excellent points, Faith! There's really nothing like real life experience of places/situations that you're going to plop your characters into for writing vivid settings. I especially love the last point--I'm working on a contemporary right now where I gave the MC one of my friends' houses, and another one where I gave the MC the house where my family was living when I was born, and it makes it way easier for me, so probably easier for hte reader also!

    I'll definitely be referring back to this as I work on various settings in my projects!

    1. I LOVE basing houses on places I've been--it makes it feel like visiting the house of a friend ^_^

      Thank you so much! You're so sweet :D

  4. You make a lot of good points! I've always struggled with writing descriptions of places, so having a sliver of reality in the fantasy world building and basing things on places I've been and pictures I've seen has really helped me!

    1. Descriptions are SO hard--I hope this ends up being helpful!


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