Setting: Place

Setting: Place

Thanks to for the intro and outro music.

Ask the Author: Chris via My next question is do you use Beta readers to read your manuscript?

Aaron: Another fine question. I think we’ve done an episode on Beta Readers, too, but that was some time ago, so I’ll keep this quick. Yes, I use beta readers. I think they’re vital to the success of a project. But you have to be kind to them. Give them time to do a good job. Listen to their advice. Reciprocate. When they need something read, be the first one to step up and read for them. I have a couple beta readers that work this way. It’s not exactly a critique group, but it has the same benefits. We don’t meet regularly (because we’re too busy writing), but once a project is ready for new eyes, we’re the ones we go to.

Al: I’ve not used beta readers–at least not in the strictest sense. The idea is a fairly new one. My wife has read almost everything I’ve written for publications. A few times, I’ve had someone read over my the material but not often. I’m not opposed to the process. If you have people who have some skills then it can be helpful. For most of my writing, I’ve been under contract and knew that editors would be assigned to my work. I left it at that.

MJ: I have a very small, trustworthy circle of fellow writers who get my new chapters as I write them, and Aaron who will get the manuscript once it’s complete. Something about my frequent changes irritates him? Yes, I use beta readers because I can ask for input or clarification. One of my beta readers is a woman I’ve never met in person, but she lives in New Orleans and we “met” online through mutual friends. She’s been utterly invaluable to the entire process, and a huge morale booster. I also appreciate that I can reach out to them and ask “What do you think this character could do here?” or “Does this set up work for the next scene?” I’m a perfectionist, I think we’ve established that a few times, so it’s hard for me to move forward without knowing what’s behind me is “accurate” and “acceptable.” My beta readers affirm both for me. I will also give them the full MS once it’s complete for another read through.

Firsts in Fiction

Setting: Place

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. For example, think of a “love story.” This typical romance will play out differently in Los Angeles in the 1920s than it would in the 1960s in the South. Or in 2121 in space. Just saying.


In our last program we talked about setting in time, such as past, contemporary, future. Today, we chat about setting your story in a place. That’s right, a “place setting.”  Sorry. Well you know I’m all about the plates and what’s on them. 🙂


When establishing the PLACE of your novel, consider the following:

  • Your story MUST take place in a particular PLACE (either fictional or real) as well as a particular time.
  • The purpose of physical settings:
    • The heart of every story is action. That action must flow and change over the course of the plot. Stories are difficult to understand when they don’t take place in, well, a place. Even a non-place is a place. Here I’m thinking of the movie Gravity, which takes place mostly in the void of space.
    • If you’ve ever been to a stage play, you know the production creates a set in front of which the actors act. In Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple the action takes place in a New York apartment shared by two very different men. (There’s also a female version.)
    • Setting can become a character which helps or hinders the protagonist. (The Old Man and Sea for example.)
    • There have been stories that have purposefully left out setting for a time. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” for example features a cast five who interact with no visible setting behind them. He used it raise suspense in the viewer. (They were toy figures kept in a can.) One of my favorite episodes!
    • Readers, as we’ve often said, live vicariously through our fiction. That means the need “handholds” to help them understand and remember a story. A sense of place does that. Batman needs Wayne Manor and Gotham City. I have a question on this: Wayne Manor and Gotham City are two distinctly different settings: one offers Batman/Bruce Wayne his solace, the other is his duty. Do most stories require conflicting settings like this? Also, how much is too much? If you’re scene-hopping with every chapter, do you have too many settings within the story, and can this confuse your reader?
  • Fictional or real place?
    • Advantages of fictional place:
      • No comparison to real city. I’ve set a lot of books in San Diego, and a few in Seattle. My concern has always been listing the wrong community or street or freeway, etc.
      • You can create the locations mythology. Think of Stephen King’s fabricated towns.
      • You can create the place’s history.
      • Draw your own streets, create your own businesses, fabricate your own neighborhoods.
      • All this means you need to keep track of your creation.
      • Of course, this applies to small towns, big cities, other worlds and planets.
    • Advantages of using real places:
      • Familiarity
      • Reality is sometimes better than fiction.
      • Easy to get information.
      • Adds a level or realism
      • Historical references can draw the reader in deeper, making them feel more connected. For instance, Dallas in 1963 is a hot political climate. My book NOLA takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans.
  • For a fictional town, do some world-building. [We did a prior podcast series on world building, please check it out!] What sorts of people live there? Why? What do they like? What do they fear? What kind of economy keeps the town going? Is it rural? Urban? Use specific detail and proper nouns to help develop the world (The Factory rather than “the pizza place.” Harry’s Hardware as opposed to “the local hardware place.”) BE SURE TO APPEAL TO ALL FIVE SENSES WHERE YOU CAN.
    • Keep a Story Bible- a binder full of notes, drawings, magazine clippings; whatever you need to maintain consistency, and also get you through moments of writer’s block.
    • For real towns and cities, do some research. Find some pictures. Visit, if you can. I (Molly Jo) use Google Earth a lot. Just recently I read a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a letter he wrote regarding Sherlock Holmes’ knowledge of London. While Holmes the character was familiar with the area, Doyle the writer was not. He wrote “By the way it must amuse you to see the vast and accurate knowledge of London which I display. I worked it all out from a post-office map.” Just make sure your map, or software, is current.
    • Also, what time does this take place? Try to find information about your location and what it looked like during the era you’re writing. USE LANDMARKS WHEN POSSIBLE. I read a book that took place in a particular city, and the only resemblance it had to the actual place was the name.
  • Brass tacks. I (Al) used both fictional towns and real cities for my settings. Here are some things I did:
    • In several cases, I used real towns as a basis for my fictional town. I did a series of suspense books that I set in a seaside town called Santa Rita, California. (The Incumbent, Before Another Dies,  and Director’s Cut.)
      • Santa Rita is loosely based on Ventura, California. I took the things I liked about Ventura and added settings that served the story. So, same ocean, same freeway, same hillside construction, and same style buildings.
      • I also did a couple of books set in the California mountains. I called the community Ridgeline and it’s based on Crestline, Arrowhead, and Wrightwood (community in a different set of California mountains).
      • I used Google maps a lot. I used to live near these towns so I have memories of them and I could also visit them if I needed. However, since I was creating a fictional town, I didn’t have to make my city conform exactly.
      • I also use the “street view” function of Google maps so I could sit in my office and see what the street view is like for almost any town in the world. I used this technique heavily in San Diego based Wounds.
    • For real places, I’ve set in San Diego, Albuquerque, Seattle, Washington, DC. North Carolina, South Carolina, Naples (Italy, not Florida), and even places like Siberia and Antarctica.
      • Be prepared for research if you’re not writing about a place you’re familiar with. Don’t make assumptions.
      • Visit if you can, but that’s not always required unless you’re using a lot of local detail.
      • Don’t be afraid to insert a fictional place in a real setting. For example, In my first book (By My Hands) Much of the action takes place in Kingston Memorial Hospital. There is no such hospital, but I did place where a real hospital sits. Jeff Struecker and I had to create a fictional building on an Army base where our special ops team was stationed. We couldn’t use the real place.
  • Your characters determine what you (the writer) pay the most attention to.
    • Your character should have an awareness of the location (unless they’re a stranger, in which case they’ll pay attention to pretty much anything). They will have their favorite spots to go hang out. They’re going to take the same route to work every day. Where are they comfortable? Where are they uncomfortable?
    • Characters will have preferences. Protagonist A likes coffee shops but Best Friend B prefers the local pub. These contrasts can be used to develop not only your overall story, but your individual characters. What if the coffee shop closes? Will Protagonist A go to a bar for his or her morning java? Well, maybe in New Orleans . . .
  • Local events: One of the great things about Welcome to Nightvale is it’s attention to the bizarre setting of the town, and how mundane things like the “secret” police are. It also has a truly bizarre “Community Calendar” feature. These local events (think of a bridge flooding, the local haunted house, the murder at the local gas station, etc.) that make the local headlines, but not the national headlines.
  • Weather: Speaking of weather, don’t be afraid to use weather as a means to, not only establish setting, but also conflict. Let them get snowed in. Let the rain fall. Perhaps there’s a flood. Maybe your story takes place during record setting heat, or an unprecedented cold snap. Does the weather kill the crops? Is there a drought? Remember, if it’s cold and wet, keep your reader cold and wet. You’ll come back to these descriptions often.
  • Culture: Locations have their own cultures. Think of their holidays and their celebrations and festivals. We’re familiar with typical American culture, but do some research on others. If you’re setting is fictional, you get to make these up. If it’s real, you should do some research, and also be aware that, within a given location, there will be several cultures at work. This is another great way to establish conflict–the coming together of different cultures. Think of movies like Footloose. Maybe we should call this the Footloose theory. 🙂
  • Food: And here’s where I get to say again, “What’s on your plate?” Wherever you are, there’s some form of local cuisine. Different regions of Italy have different pasta, the midwest where I’m from loves sauerkraut dishes, New Orleans is defined by its unique cuisine, Florida is known for its diets. If you’re creating a fictional setting, you can incorporate whatever flavors your characters appreciate. This reminds me of Thomas Rockwell’s book “How to Eat Fried Worms.” It wasn’t really about eating worms, but it certainly gets the readers’ attention when it does become about eating worms, if that makes sense.

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