How To engage Readers With Your Setting
Let’s talk about how to choose the perfect setting for your book so that you can walk away knowing exactly how to entice your readers and hold their attention.
I really believe that setting is central – it impacts your character, the plot, and the structure. It also affects how you write. How much easier is it to write about somewhere you know?
Think about some of the most successful books of all time. Gregory David Roberts made Bombay so vivid in his debut novel, Shantaram, it felt like you were navigating the teeming streets and slums of the city’s underworld with him.
From a reader’s perspective, it’s not just a backdrop. If done well, your setting will
help tell the story, enrich your characters, engage your reader, and add depth to your writing.
Setting is not just about place though; it also includes the time period and social environment. For example, there’s a huge difference between London during the Second World War and London in the 1960s.
So how do you choose the best setting for your book? Let me break it down into the three elements – place, time, and social environment – and what you should consider for each.
First, make sure the place fits your story. Lucy’s Foley’s The Guest List is set on a remote island on a stormy night which only adds drama to the ‘who dunnit’ storyline. If you’re writing romance, which place would add to your narrative? There’s a reason why so many romance novels are set in Italy!
You also need to decide if your place is real or imaginary. If you choose the latter, you will need to spend time world-building as well. If it’s real, pick a place you know. You don’t want to lose readers because you haven’t done your research properly.
Finally, consider your main character. If you’re writing a book where the teenager is the main character, a school might be a good choice for your setting, so if you’re an adult make sure you understand how schools are during the time your book is set, and not when you went to school.
Over what period of time is your story told? Is it a year? A month? A week? 10 years? Ideally, you should know this early on, but it may change and that’s fine. In my last novel, my time period changed several times before I was happy with it.
If you choose an historical period, such as the eighteenth century, do you have the time and resources to understand that era? When I wrote The Home, I had a dual timeline. One narrative set in the 1960s and one in present day. As I was born in 1979, I had to spend a lot of time researching the former. While I enjoy research, it can be a time-consuming and I probably wouldn’t do it again unless I had more flexible deadlines.
Many writers struggle to convey the time period without actually stipulating it. There’s been a trend in novels recently where dates are used to mark each chapter. If the dates are central to understanding the book, then feel free to use them, but be aware that too many can cause confusion. Calendar time is useful is marking specific holidays, for example Christmas Day. You could refer to a specific date such as April 1st in reference to April Fool’s Day, or September as the month of going back to school. Countdowns can be a great technique to create suspense and I used this in my fourth novel. The story is told over a five-day period and each section is titled 5 days ago, 4 days ago etc. until the big reveal.
3. Social environment
Based on your choices above, you can then explore the social environment. Make sure you understand the social norms and expectations of your time and place. What was the weather like? What important world events took place and how do they impact your story? The year 2020 is an apt example with the global pandemic and I know many writers will avoid setting their novels during that year! As well as major events, it's also about knowing the minutiae. Another example in The Home was when I accidentally included the main character using a mobile phone and emoji in the 1960s timeline! Luckily my editor spotted it 😊.
These three elements of setting, if done right, will add dimension to your writing so spend time on understanding all three areas. If you’re a new writer, make it as easy as possible for yourself. For example, in my first novel, The Good Mother, I had only two places, Durham and Cumbria in the UK. I chose these because I know them intimately and I was confident in my knowledge when writing about them.
So, your action for today is to brainstorm all the social and environmental considerations of your chosen time and place.
I know this approach will help you add depth to your writing and draw your readers in to your story. Understanding your setting early will also provide a great foundation for your work.
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