Writing Tips

#WritingTips Choosing a Setting

Every Monday, I recover previous posts that were popular, but I tackle them in a whole new way. Today, I’m covering how to choose a setting for your novel or poem or short story or whatever you’re writing. The original post, Setting: Picking a Location, can be read by clicking the link, and it covers other aspects to keep in mind, but today, I only want to tackle two ideas: real-world settings and imaginary ones.

1. Real-World Settings: Write What You Know or Research

When you’re writing about a place in the real world, you honestly have two options: write what you know or write after you research extensively. This is especially true if you’re writing a historical piece, but that’s a completely different topic to cover, so I’m basically talking about the here and now. If you’re making a decision, don’t pick what is easiest. Instead, pick what is right for your story. In fact, you might have to write your story’s first draft to realize what type of setting you need, and that’s perfectly okay. As long as you figure out what you need and where you need to go, do it the way that feels right to you as a writer. But once you know what you need, you can start researching. I always suggest considering places you already know, but I am probably biased because I moved all around the country as a kid, so I have a plethora of places to consider. That being said, you can always travel too, but please don’t think you MUST travel in order to write about a place. While Ally Carter does travel a lot—and bases many of her books on those places—she also says, “I try and try and try to get people to believe me when I say that my job is basically looking at a whiteboard covered with sticky notes and/or a computer and/or big stacks of paper all day long.” This is how picking a setting (or any part of your novel) is going to go. Research and think and research again. Even better? Research is SO easy nowadays. You can even talk to someone from that exact location if you want to. All you have to do is join a forum. One thing I’ve always loved is pretending I’m moving there. (If I play “your life is about to change dramatically,” it forces me to take it very, very seriously.) Look at the setting via Google Maps, read a travel guide, research schools, check out the town’s official website, talk to people who live there or have in the least been there. You can do it. Look at it this way, if you can spend months writing about it, you can take a week or three reading about it. One of my favorite tools—even just for fun reading—is Earth Album. You just click, and voila! Pictures of the location and the name, so you can start Googling. If you click on the picture too, it will generally send you to the source of the image so you can research it in-depth. It’s a good place to start.

A screenshot of Earth Album
A screenshot of Earth Album

Fun fact: Although not a real town, Haysworth, Kansas in The Timely Death Trilogy was a combination of two towns in Kansas: Hays and Ellsworth—both of which I’ve been to. I also lived in Kansas for seven years, so I was very familiar with the landscape, laws, people, beliefs, etc., and I wanted to have a paranormal story take place in the Midwest, especially since the Midwest is underrepresented in paranormal YA (actually in YA in general)…despite the fact that we have a gate to hell in Stull. (Google it. It’s a big deal to us Kansans…even though I’m a Missourian now.)

2. Imaginary Settings: World-Building and Map-Making

I could write an entire month’s worth of blog posts about world building, so this is going to be ridiculously brief, but I hope it’s a place to start. Just like the above option, I think it’s most important to figure out what your story needs first, but once you have that, you can start building. Again, that doesn’t mean I think you have to know all of this before you write. You can write the entire story to figure it out, and then, change everything in editing. Personally, I like building from the little details to the bigger ones, which I know is the opposite of many writers, but that’s okay, because I figured out what worked for me. (Most of my writing tips, you might notice, revolve around the idea of figuring out who you are as a writer.) I start with the story details, and I work my way up to a giant map. This way, I have my “rules” in place. I have the political systems, the social expectations, the movements, the beliefs, the types of people, the places, etc. Now, if you want to start with a map first, I’d suggest studying maps. See how they are drawn and draw yours. If you want something random, watch this YouTube video. It’s freakin’ awesome, and it’s an easy way to get all different types of terrain on various landscapes.

Personally, I am in the process of writing an epic fantasy, and I did it the old-school way: a piece of paper and a pen and a bunch of sticky notes. My living room was covered. (Because that’s what works for me.) Overall, it’s important to create a world just as rich and diverse as our world is today. Even if it’s a walled-in city, different types of people and beliefs will exist. Don’t sell your world short. Explore it, take notes on it, explore it some more. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to include every little detail of your imaginary world in your book (especially not in the first chapter), but knowing as much as possible can help fine-tune your voice and your characters. If you’re going to take inspiration from history, be honest but be respectful. That means being diligent. Be everything you’d want a future writer to be in regards to if they took inspiration from your lifetime or your country. Create a world we’ve never seen before.

Fun fact: Take Me Tomorrow and November Rain both take place in the near-future U.S., but were built very differently. The Tomo Trilogy takes place throughout the entire country, while Bad Bloods takes place in one walled-in city. While Take Me Tomorrow was largely built around rail transportation in the U.S., November Rain was built on a real city I never actually name in the story (but I do give hints as to what it is). The epic fantasy I mentioned above doesn’t take place in this world at all. That took a lot more time and consideration to create, but it was well worth it in the end.

Create, and create well. And, of course, have fun.


Come get your books signed on February 13, from 1-3 PM during the Barnes & Noble Valentine’s Day Romance Author Event in Wichita, Kansas at Bradley Fair. Come meet Tamara GranthamCandice GilmerTheresa Romain, Jan Schliesman, and Angi Morgan! If you haven’t started The Timely Death Trilogy, don’t worry. Minutes Before Sunset, book 1, is free!

Minutes Before Sunset, book 1:

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Seconds Before Sunrisebook 2:

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Death Before Daylightbook 3:

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9 thoughts on “#WritingTips Choosing a Setting

  1. Ah, world-building. So much fun with a hint of headache in there. At least if you have a series and worry about continuity. This is why I keep track of where every location turns up in case I have to go back there. Good advice on starting small and then big. Though I’m not sure if we’re thinking the same thing. I usually start with the location’s purpose and a terrain like desert, eternal rain, etc. Then I build it up when I’m doing the first draft because I’ll have a better idea of the people who live there and my mind will be deeper into the world.

    Have to admit I find fantasy settings easier than real world. My next project required that I spend a day studying Google Earth to pick out locations and towns for the cross country trip. Half the time I stumbled onto things by seeing a lake off the route or seeing that Interstate 80 came very close to a state border. Not sure if the rules change when it’s real world, but after a disaster.

    1. I think I world-build and write backward compared to a lot of writers I know. The more I think about it, the more I’m a panster (right?) rather than a plotter. But I feel like I plan a lot – just not in the “usual” way. I might know everything that is going to happen, for instance, but the terrain and the other cultures come in on their own without a plan, so I then have to go back and add in those world-building details after I finish the first draft. The first draft is remarkably terrible because of this. lol

      1. I’ve tried pantsing (hang head in shame for that line) and it didn’t go well. Honestly, I do something similar to what you’re describing. I go into details with character descriptions and subplots in my notes, but world-building is really just a single line to tell me where it shows up in the story. The cultures, architecture, overall look, and any area quirks appear during the writing stage. Though for me they appear during the first draft with a few others showing up during edits. I’m really at the point where I think every author has his or her own style that is a combination of pantser and plotter. Makes it odd when you hear someone declaring how things should be done. 🙂

      2. Exactly! Every writer should figure out what works for them, which means they must attempt to write. lol I have talked to a few aspiring writers before, and they came back disappointed, because – despite all my advice – they found writing really difficult. I had a great laugh with them, and told them that was normal. They had to keep trying. No one is perfect out of the gate. No one is ever perfect.

      3. I’ve been there. Sad thing is that hard-working, experienced authors can be seen as intimidating by new ones. I remember joining a writing class nearly 10 years ago and there were two people who were just curious about it. We did introductions and I mentioned my aspirations and that I’d already written 3 novels. The two who were merely curious ended up quitting because, I was told, they felt like they couldn’t compete with me. I felt really bad about that and it’s stuck with me. So I’m always quick to tell new authors that I was once in their shoes and it only takes time and experience to get to the ‘serious author’ status. Honestly, it’s still weird thinking of myself as anything other than a newbie.

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