What does your house or flat look like? What does the street or road outside look like? What are the distinguishing features of this time in which you live?

As writers, we are always looking around us and finding ways to describe the environments of our characters, or in other words, building setting into our fiction. It’s one of the tutorial subjects in the NZIBS Creative Writing course. The setting of a story is where and when a story takes place. Setting works as a backdrop to your story, and it can also add atmosphere. For example, a ghost story might take place in a Gothic-style creepy house, while a love story might take place on a Pacific Island cruise.

There are three main areas involved with setting. One is the time or era in which your story is set, for example, Wellington of the 1930s. The next is the environment (windy, hilly, etc.), and the third concerns individual settings … this might something like the Beehive, a hotel on Lambton Quay, or a private residence.

So, you start to set the scene, so to speak. With a historical work, this will probably involve some research to find out what things looked like back in the 30s or whenever your story is set. Photographs are very useful for this, as are letters and newspaper articles.

Using a setting that you’re familiar with is going to be easier – simply walk around that place and jot down some notes.

Specific details will make your writing sing. Your character’s mansion might be painted pink (which the neighbours hate) or it might be a rundown end-of-century monstrosity. A nearby bridge might be a metal train overpass or a solid concrete one in the country. Focus on the unique, and use all the senses – what does this place smell like? What sounds are in the vicinity at certain times of day? What colours? What physical sensations are present in this environment?

You can add another layer by thinking about the history of this place. It might be an invented history if it’s speculative fiction, or it might be historical fact. If you’re writing about a location you haven’t visited, check out Google Street View. 

Most of all, have fun. Setting is all about creating the world of your story. If you are interested in expanding your writing  capabilities, NZIBS has a range of courses that may fit the bill.

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