Writing Tips Blog

Understand Setting by Mixing It Up

By Candice Marley Conner

My favorite books to read are ones I fall into completely. I need to be grounded in the story so I can easily suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride—enjoying the twist and turns of the plot and characters without questioning why.

How do authors do this? One way is by incorporating setting. Setting includes physical location, social and cultural surroundings, climate, time of day, year, or time period. To what degree used depends on your genre as science fiction or fantasy stories need more world-building than say a contemporary school-setting that most readers have some sort of experience with.

Setting is used to create mood, tension, as well as make your characters come more alive by allowing them to use their five senses. What your character notices about their surroundings says a lot about their personalities—what do they see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Taste? When I’m reading an un-put-down-able book, I’m hearing and seeing what the character is experiencing, allowing me to relate more fully to them. So I can care about what they care about.

To illustrate the importance of setting, let’s play a mix-up game. What would the Hunger Games look like if it took place at Hogwarts? Katniss and Peeta would be battling trolls and dragons rather than kids from other districts. Would Katniss’ wand be her bow and arrow? What would Harry Potter’s world look like if it took place in Panem—magic in a ruined North America? Or would that be what District 12 is in need of rather than food—magic as a currency? Lord Voldemort would make a nice President Snow, wouldn’t he?

Imagine if, instead of being introduced to Potter in the Cupboard Under the Stairs, The SORCERER’S STONE opened with this scene: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

This first paragraph from THE HUNGER GAMES uses physical cues that invoke the senses (cold, rough canvas bedding), social (family, mother) and cultural surroundings (a mysterious reaping!) to both set the scene and entice the reader to read further.

How would the Divergent series change if it was in Narnia? Or if the White Witch created the world of the near-future dystopian Chicago? What faction would Edmund belong to? Dauntless or would he be factionless? I could see Lucy and Tumnus the faun in Amity, and Aslan in Abnegation.

Imagine if the Pevensie children described this setting in the English manor house during World War II: “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”

What aspects of setting does DIVERGENT’s opening paragraph incorporate to ground us in the scene and encourage us to read further?

Swapping settings also helps us have a deeper understanding of the characters. We understand the eerie wrongness of the Games because of what Katniss notices. What would Ron notice and how would that show us his personality? Would Hermione figure out the clock-work setting of the games earlier in CATCHING FIRE? What would Tris show us of the crumbling castles and snow-covered forests of Narnia as she grows as a character from a selfless Abnegation to a fearless Dauntless and finally to her true Divergent self?

Try setting-swaps with your own favorite books and see what new stories you come up with!

Candice Marley Conner is the kidlit haint at a haunted indie bookstore and a Local Liaison for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. She is the author of “Swamp Mallow” from the Owl Hollow Press anthology UNDER THE FULL MOON’S LIGHT (2018), “The Levee and Bea Pearl” from the OHP anthology CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2019), “Kitchen Concert” from Highlights Hello Magazine (2020), “Black Apple Harvest” from the anthology HALLOWEEN PIECES (2020), THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL (2021) a YA Southern mystery with Owl Hollow Press and more. Candice received university honors with a BA in English and concentration in Creative Writing from the University of South Alabama. She resides in Alabama with her family.

Candice is represented by Katelyn Detweiler of Jill Grinberg Literary Management. Visit her website at www.candicemarleyconner.com , Twitter @candice_marleyc, Instagram @candice_marleyconner, and Facebook @cmarleyconnerauthor.

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