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Setting Your Stories

An article in the Telegram & Gazette this morning discussed how Stephen King briefly mentions Westborough in his new novel.

 

An article in the Telegram & Gazette this morning discussed how Stephen King briefly mentions Westborough in his new novel. While I thought it was funny that King should mention our town in his novel, it got me thinking about something very important when writing: setting.

Although individual places such as the protagonist's house, place of work, or school are important, the town or city which they live in is just as crucial to the story. Take some time to develop the town. Where do people go for a fancy dinner? What is there to do for fun? Are there any slang words particular to this setting?

I was in a critique session once and my critique buddy asked me about an ice cream shop my characters went to in one scene. When she began asking what it was like, I had to pause and ask myself. In all honesty, I hadn't thought about it all. I just knew it was centrally located and a popular place for kids to go to after school. After receiving this feedback, I went home and made some decisions about this place. I continued on to think about the town as a whole. I began asking myself some important questions and soon I had a much clearer vision of Greendale. It grew from a place with a hodgepodge of buildings to a town with specific streets, locations, and areas.

If you are working with a setting which actually exists, it would be a good idea to spend a day there, take some pictures, and jot down some observations. One of my English teachers often visits the settings of the books we read in class. She shows us pictures of actual and specific buildings which match the places in the novels. If you have a fictitious setting, begin to develop it by asking yourself some of these questions.

-What is the town known for?

-Are there any town traditions? Do they celebrate holidays with parades and ceremonies or do residents have to go elsewhere?

-What are the people like? Are there any qualities specific to the residents?

-Are there any good or bad areas?

-Is there a downtown? If so, what is it like? Are there stores, restaurants, or parks?

-How does this setting involve itself in the story?

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Trish Reske January 17, 2012 at 09:44 PM
That's really interesting about Steven King's novel, 11/22/63, Michael, I hadn't heard that. You're right about setting, and your questions are great thought-starters, especially the last one. Good writers bring you right into the setting with detailed descriptions. Thanks for the reminder.
Tim Dodd January 18, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Michael- Interesting post! Although some of his towns in Maine may be fictional, they are generally based on the uinque geography, people, and cultures of distinct regions in that state. The poorly characterized settings in his novels are those, like apparently Westborough in 11/22/63, of which he is not familiar. I think that an author's understanding of the different elements of a particular setting, that you articulate in your post, helps them to paint a strong, accurate, and interesting picture.
Michael Colbert January 19, 2012 at 12:37 AM
I'm glad I can help, Mrs. Reske. I've noticed that some of my favorite books are the ones which have active and intriguing settings.
Michael Colbert January 19, 2012 at 12:42 AM
I understand what you mean about King basing fictional towns on actual places. In John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, the town Gravesend is based on Exeter, NH and the parallels between the towns are numerous. It is often a good idea to ground a fictitious setting in an existent place granted that the writer is familiar with that area.

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