9b. Settings Part Two: Making settings come to life


So how do we make our settings come to life?

How well you can gather detail about your settings depends a lot on your constraints - time and money.

Ideally, you'll immerse yourself in each setting - including in each relevant time of day and season. 

However, this may not be practical (particularly if you're writing a steam punk novel), in which case your imagination will have to pick up the slack.

If you can go to the locations you're going to use as settings, then go - take copious amounts of photographs (which can easily be saved and kept track of with The Novel Factory Novel Software) make reams of notes about everything you can see, smell, taste, feel, hear. Take samples of sand, pebbles, dried leaves - whatever you can. Try to look at the place through the eyes of your characters - what would they notice? What would they ignore?

However, if you can't go there - you'll need to research - and lucky you, you live in the era of the Internet. Get online and find pictures, even videos - of places and buildings that are as close as possible to what you envisioned. Study the pictures and you're guaranteed to find more delicious detail in real life (or some artist's imagination) than you could have come up with on your own.

A quick exercise to prove this if you're so inclined:

Take ten minutes now and write a description of a sweet shop, without doing any research online - no cheating! You know one of those old ones where all the sweets are in jars. Go on, go right ahead and do that.

Done? Now go and spent ten minutes searching for images of these old style sweet shops. Keep the pictures somewhere handy. Now, constantly referring to the pictures, spend another ten minutes on a second description of the sweetshop.


And if you like - post your results in the comments.


Draw maps and plans

It's hard to overstate how important it is to have floor plans detailing each of the places your characters visit.

Seeing exactly which rooms are adjoining; where the doors and windows are, where they lead and what can be seen through them; what furniture is where - really anchors your characters, rather than giving the impression they're drifting around the space. Having this information will add realistic detail to your story as you will see what in the environment the character can interact with, where they bump into each other and things, how they enter and leave.


List the senses

It's time to get analytic about the abstract. Prosaic though it may seem, go through each of your settings and make a list for all of the senses.
  • What can you (or better, your point of view character) see?
  • What can you smell?
  • What can you taste?
  • What can you feel?
  • What can you hear?
Just make a list. You probably won't use everything on the list. You may use hardly any of it. But when you're writing your scene, you'll have this box of colours, ready to dip into without having to break your flow.

Next - advanced plotting - consistency and clarity