Setting: Circumstances

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Firsts in Fiction

Setting: Circumstances

To begin, let’s be clear on what “setting” entails. Setting refers to the time, the place, and the circumstances in which your story takes place. We often think of it only as “place,” but time and circumstances are of equal importance.

The circumstances of your story usually refers to what’s happening AROUND your character in that particular location at that particular time. To illustrate this, let’s play a game. I give you the location and the time, you tell me the circumstances:  

  • 1863 in Athens, Georgia (Civil War)
  • December 1773 in Boston Massachusetts (Boston Tea Party)
  • September 11th, 2001, New York
  • 1965 Alabama (Civil Rights movement, Selma March)
  • November 1929 America (Stock Market Crash, Great Depression)

Not all circumstances have to be wars, or tragic. Think of the economic boom in the early 2000s in California. Or the American’s winning the Gold Medal in hockey in the 80s. Triumphs can be just as powerful.

Suggestions for including the circumstances in your novel or story:

  • Make sure it gets “screen time”: You should acknowledge the circumstances in some tangible way. Have someone mention it in passing. Have a character checking their stocks, or hiding a gun under their pillow, or visiting a military recruiter.
  • It doesn’t have to be the primary focus: Resist the urge to let the circumstances take over your plot. If you’re writing a romance set while the Civil War is raging, so be it. Remember, the romance is the story, it’s the war that must take the back seat. Don’t feel as if 90% of your novel has to be battle scenes. Think of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Both of them wrote about characters coming home from the first World War trying to readjust to normal civilian life. The war wasn’t always the focus, but what came after.
  • It should affect your character in some way: Be it a big impact or a small impact, the circumstance should touch your character in some way. Perhaps it’s the record-setting heat that drives him or her to seek shelter in a cave in order to survive. Or maybe they lose money in the market (or make it). Maybe they have more money than they’re used to, or less of it. Perhaps a family member was in the World Trade Centers on September 11th. That may be backstory, but the backstory will deepen your character and your setting.
  • Do some research: It’s important you get the details right. You can find almost anything you need online now, but some things you have to dig for. We’ve done some casts on research before, and I’d suggest giving those another look before you start to dig up all the details you’ll need to know all there is to know about the circumstances of your setting.
  • Do some world building: Last week, we suggested using fictional settings. You still can, but you’ll still want to consider what circumstances surround your characters in your fictional world. These may be wars, industrial revolutions, technology rampage, the fall (or the rise) of a nation. Consider what is happening in your world. For fictional towns in a real America (or England, or France, etc.), be aware of the circumstances in the larger state and/or nation.
  • Circumstances may be personal: Not everything plays out on a national or global scale. While those events are important and relevant for our discussion, we also want to remember the small circumstances that help define your setting. Think of these examples:
  • A loved one is dying, and the hero must find a way to save them (The Bargain)
  • The passing of an estranged son leads the father on a trail of a dangerous mystery (Harrison Sawyer)
  • The inexplicable disappearance of four local teens in a small city in Minnesota (Hand of Adonai, The Book of Things to Come)

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