Writing about Settings

Setting is the time and place where your story is set. It can be as mundane as a typical suburban neighborhood or as exotic as a foreign country or alien planet. Remember, “exotic” to you might be the mundane to someone else, and vice versa, so you will have to rely on your skills of description to bring the setting alive.

Another term for setting is location, although that is more properly limited to the physical space in which the story is set. But setting involves much more – the time or era when the story is taking place (past, present, future); the passage of time, such as how long a period your story covers (a day, an hour, a character’s entire life); mood and emotion; physical location (for example, deserts, cities, planets, underwater algae farm, Victorian London); geography (the description of the physical location as related to nature – rivers, mountains, etc.); and weather and climate.

Additionally, your setting needs to be populated, otherwise there’s not much of a story. First, consider the people you’re writing about: are they human? It’s not a dumb question, because depending on your story you could be writing about protagonists who are fully human, paranormal creatures such as werecows, or aliens from another planet or dimension.

Use descriptions of the physical landscape (geography) and buildings to help establish your setting. It helps to look at photographs of locations when you’re trying to come up with descriptive text, but don’t forget to use sensory descriptions to make the place come alive in the mind of the reader. The beach may look wonderful, but what does it smell like? Is the breeze strong? Or hot, or cold? What kind of sounds does the protagonist hear at the beach? Does the sand crunch under his sandals, or get into his shoes and give him a blister?

Thursday Writing Prompt No. 139

I captured this image during a nighttime cemetery excursion in Edinburgh, Scotland. Is it simply a flashlight blurred by movement, or is it something else?

I captured this image during a nighttime cemetery excursion in Edinburgh, Scotland. Is it simply a person holding a flashlight, blurred by the camera’s long exposure–or is it something else?

I’m having another night of insomnia. It’s gotten to be that I’m dealing with this three or four nights a week, but I can’t find a pattern to it. It doesn’t seem to matter if I drink coffee or tea or alcohol, and it doesn’t matter what I eat or how much I exercise. I think partly I’m just getting used to using the time for writing or other creative work and so I’m starting to crave it. Obnoxiously, a few nights ago I wanted very much to work on a project and I couldn’t keep my eyes open no matter what.

O! Fickle Muse!

And that brings me to this week’s Thursday Writing Prompt. Many writers use the wee hours of night to coax words onto the page. Some just can’t sleep, while others just find it easier to write uninterrupted once everyone else has settled down for the night.

But what if the reason were something else? What if, during the night, your Muse did actually visit you? What form would it take? Human, animal, god/goddess, elf, alien, robot? Would the Muse offer you a gentle nudge, or slam your head into the desk if you didn’t start typing right away?

Your task is to introduce your Muse and to describe the modus operandi that he or she or it uses to wring some words out of you. Because you are the only one who can see your Muse, you will have to be very descriptive in your writing. Pull the curtains shut against the world, shut the door against interruptions, and write on into the night. I am.

Thursday Writing Prompt No. 138

My "explorer" photo added to a virtual bus stop.

My “explorer” photo added to a virtual bus stop thanks to PhotoFunia.

My husband calls this picture of me my “Richard Attenborough” photo. Not the bus stop — just the picture of me in the window. It’s from Yellowstone, when we visited back in 2010. The cloud behind my shoulder is steam from a volcanic vent and my hair is tousled by the wind. It’s probably the wildest place that we’ve visited and the closest to being an explorer that I’ve been. What can I say? I’m an urban/suburban child. I might manage to do a short survival trek, but I like my coffee, hot water, and soap, thank you very much. And — the mosquitoes like me just too much.

This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt is about travel. Pick a location and write a paragraph or two for a travel brochure that describes the place in glowing detail. Now here’s the twist: the place is somewhere you’d never want to visit. Whether it’s just rough country or an urban area infested with traffic jams, identify that place and put your fiction-writing talents to work selling that locale to some unsuspecting would-be tourist. Have fun, and don’t forget to inject some humor into this. It shouldn’t be all doom-and-gloom.

But see those white posts next to the road? I bet you think they’re some kind of traffic bollards, don’t you? Well, they’re not. They are the spiky teeth of some gigantic monster that’s about to devou….

Thursday Writing Prompt No. 137

Cutaway view of a shaggy bacterium.

Cutaway view of a shaggy bacterium.

I’m writing a short Steampunk story set in the same world as my Seacombe novel, which I expect to publish this year. The story involves some science, and I went looking for pictures of plant cells so I could describe them in the story as the character sees them. I came across this cutaway image of a bacterium (not a plant, though). I couldn’t find any copyright information on it, so I’ve appropriated it for the blog and done some photo manipulation on it just because I felt the need to do something artsy this morning.

So, this bacterium looks pretty shaggy, doesn’t it? It makes me think of a cheese puff that’s fallen onto a carpet and rolled around for a few days, picking up crumbs and stray hairs. Not that I have stray cheese puffs roaming about my house, mind you! Potato chip crumbs might be another matter …

This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt celebrates bacteria. They’re not all bad, and despite the bad rap that Escherichia coli has earned (a rod-shaped bacterium that looks suspiciously like our shaggy friend above), it’s only one variety of E. coli that is dangerous. Many species of bacteria are beneficial, and we wouldn’t have yogurt without them.

In honor of bacteria, for this week’s writing prompt, you have a character who is biologist studying a bacterium that has some very unusual properties. Write a short paragraph describing this microscopic beast and what makes it so special. It doesn’t have to be realistic, but as with any good science fiction you may want to do a little bit of research. Bacteria inhabit some extreme climates, and have even been found living in rocks, so don’t feel that you have to limit the environment that it lives in. Push the boundaries, and come up with something fantastic. Happy writing!