05 January 2018

Where is more than the name of a place.

I was fortunate to learn early from a panel of editors: "Setting is the fictional element that most quickly distinguishes the professional writer from the beginner." These were acquisition editors at a couple publishing houses and magazines. Stories without settings did not make it out of the slush pile.

Setting is not just the name of a place or a time-period; it is the feeling of the place and time period. It comprises all conditions - region, geography, neighborhood, buildings, interiors, climate, time of day, season of year.

Setting should appear near the beginning of a novel or story and remain throughout by answering the questions WHERE and WHEN. Using sensory details, the writer can flesh out a setting: the visual, smells, sounds, taste, feeling of the atmosphere. All five senses should be used by describing the little things - what your character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells.

Every story takes place somewhere. Setting is more than a backdrop, it creates mood, tone and can help establish the theme of a work of fiction. Like characters, it plays an important role in a story. Writers should not neglect setting.

When establishing a setting, get the details correct. You can't have azaleas blooming in Louisiana in December. In New Orleans, the weather is an important part of setting. We have only two seasons - steamy hot in spring, summer and fall - wet cold in winter. There are occasional mild days at the start of spring and the beginning of autumn. Tennessee Williams said these were the only good days in New Orleans.

Go to the place you set your story (or a place like it if you create a fictional city or village or whatever). Go there and watch, listen, take notes. It has helped me often in important scenes.

One of the most gratifying compliments I receive come from New Orleanians telling me how real the city seems in my novels and stories. They see people and places they know. Even The Times-Picayune (a newspaper notoriously indifferent to local genre writers) described my writing as, "the real thing," when it comes to the city.

The weather can come as a surprise as in real life. As I wrote my crime novel BOURBON STREET, I learned about the 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane (hurricanes were not named back then) and how after hitting Fort Lauderdale, crossed Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into New Orleans. It flooded the city similar to the way the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina, only the water didn't stay as long since there were no lakefront levees to help turn New Orleans into a bowl as it is today. The water quickly receded. I had my characters use the hurricane to assist in their escape.

I do agree with Elmore Leonard to leave out the parts people skip over. A writer, especially a mystery writer, may want to make sure the description of the setting does not overwhelm the scene.

Research. Research. Research when you set a piece in a place you've never been. If you work hard enough you can capture enough of the setting to work.

As I began to write my latest mystery, SAINT LOLITA, I originally set it on a real Caribbean island and quickly saw I'd never get the details correct so I made up an island - Saint Lolita, which lies west of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. I researched islands of the Lesser Antilles to get details of flora and fauna and architecture, populations, cuisine, architecture and weather and I think I pulled it off.

Setting. Don't neglect it, especially in longer stories and novels.



  1. Great points about setting here, O'Neil. I think too often people treat it too lightly, when it should help to inform character and plot and more. Appreciate the perspectives here!

  2. I've always felt if one know how a place smells, one is all set to do the setting!
    A good piece.

  3. Love the post, O'Neil, and Janice, what a good tip! Up here in SD, an integral (but often unmentioned) part of the smell of a muggy day is the feedlots. (Country living isn't all pure air and clean sheets, if you know what I mean.) Florence King, in "Southern Ladies & Gentlemen" (a hilarious book), described "one of those hot, sticky nights now associated with Rod Steiger movies, a race-riot sort of night in which not a breeze is blowing, a night so airless and hot that you can even smell the cockroaches." That's a pretty good setting for just about anything.

  4. Excellent post, that starts with a bang. My novice students so often place their novels in "Anytown, USA" such that there is no feel of setting at all. They tell me they do this so they won't get caught out writing about a place they haven't been. And I say, then set it in a place you have been! Or do the research. Or if you make a place up, make me feel it, see it, smell it.

  5. Excellent post, O'Neil, and good points all.

    One other thing it's easy to forget is the local mindset. Sometimes it's big things like politics or attitudes, but sometimes it's much smaller. My upcoming book has the off-hand comment from two visitors that in Connecticut, people refer to distance by the driving time instead of the mileage.

    For example, I live fifteen minutes south of Hartford. In the Midwest, where I grew up, it would have been "ten miles."

    A couple of local idioms can go a long way, too.

  6. Setting is aways tricky. We need to include enough so that readers get a sense of place, but not so much that they get bogged down by the details.

  7. O’Neill, I couldn’t agree more. One of the things I often find lacking in modern writing is setting – getting a real feel for where you are and having that enhance the story. That’s one of the things I love most about Chandler. Obviously, one doesn’t want to overdo it, but I find so many stories and novels almost totally lacking it I hardly know where I am. Just saying the story is set in Poughkeepsie or wherever isn’t nearly enough.

  8. I live a few minutes north of the Quaker Oats plant down by the river in Buffalo. On days when they're making Quaker Oats cereal & the wind is right, the city smells great! That's also where the wild turkeys live who have been to my yard looking for food. And in Buffalo we end phone conversations with, "I'll holler at you later on!"

  9. Thanks for the comments, y'all. As I said, first thing I do on the computer every morning is to go SleuthSayers where I learn stuff about writing and stuff about so many damn cool things I don't know about.

  10. This is a fine article, my friend. Thank you.


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