by Carol Brennan King June 17, 2020

In this class, we talked about knowing what we are talking about…and showing it in that first chapter of our book or the beginning of our story. We have talked a lot about how you have to hook your reader right out of the blocks by introducing your protagonist, painting the setting – time and space, and laying the ground for the conflict(s) that will keep the motor running – or your reader reading.

The emphasis this week is the setting, likening it to building a house, and you can’t do either one if you don’t know what belongs where. So I encourage you to draw an outline of the town or city or even street where the action is centered. If it is a house, make a sketch of each floor and where the table, the bed, the favorite chair, even where the bathroom is, especially if it figures in the story.

When I began writing the story of my family coming to the US, I did lots of research so I would know the layout or possible layout of typical Irish homes of the mid -1800’s. Then I did all kinds of research about the immigrant ships in order to imagine what the trip might have been like. This painting of the quarterdeck of an immigrant ship got me started as I imagined how the captain and his crew would check to see that only people with tickets were aboard and to introduce the Irish to what the routine would be on the ship, when and where they would get their meager rations, though I am sure the captain did not describe the seven pounds per adult per week as meager.

D.M.Pulley in an article published October 21, 22019 said there are five points to making your setting come alive for the reader.

  1. Select the site. If you use real cities, you must know all about them – because cities come with baggage, history that sets a scene that comes with the name. And if your story does not rise from the history we know of that city, you have to work hard to overcome the city’s ready-made reputation.

You may find it useful to make up a city, but it has to have a neighborhood, and you need to know what that looks like. Perhaps it will be necessary to know the distance to nearby villages or cities or transportation hubs. Build this map in your notebook, so you can check there as the story develops. You don’t want to send someone somewhere in a half an hour if they can’t get there in a half an hour.

2. Draw up blueprints for the house or buildings where your characters will see the most action. In one book I was writing, the family lived in a small town in Pennsylvania in an upper middle class house. I actually was able to find that house and floor plans of similar houses to write authentically about what happened there. Do the same for you work….even if you are making it up, make it as close to the real thing as possible.

3. Build a solid foundation. That means know what else was going on at the time. When I wrote about the family living in the early twentieth century, I had to examine how WWI affected life in that small town, how they celebrated Christmas, what songs were popular, and you can imagine the rest. All of those details help your reader feel like he or she is seeing and hearing what your characters did.

4. Frame the story. I am going to borrow a line from the originator of these notes, “Ask yourself, what makes your setting essential to the story. IF you don’t have a good answer. you need to work on finding a setting that not only fits the tone, mood, and dynamics of the narrative, but one that also feeds it.”

5. Add Structural Connections. Every character lives in or visits or has something to do with the setting, and they feel something about the setting. Think, for yourself, about the environments you have lived in. How did you feel about them? Did you hate to leave, and why? Was it one of those, “I can’t wait to get out of here,” things and why? Did it shape any of your decisions?

Now, think of your story. Remember, the setting functions often like another character impacting heavily on what your characters do and don’t do.

Again, I am going to borrow a couple sentences from Pulley: “A novel’s setting is the foundation that anchors it and gives historical context and meaning to the narrative. Treating the setting like any other character will force the author to examine whether it serves the plot, tone, and theme of the book.”

All of that to say, “You have to know the setting, and it has to be believable and identifiable.” Let it help you tell the story.

We had a great four weeks together for this last class and I look forward to seeing you for the first four Wednesdays in July, on Zoom.


You can google 5 Tips for Building a House or Setting that Comes Alive for Readers if you want more “from the horse’s mouth.”

The photo came from The Great Irish Potato Famine by James S. Donnelly, Jr.

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