Settings fall into three rough categories: a fantasy world (The Witcher series), a specific place and time in our own world (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or a vision of a real time and place enhanced with a scrim of fantastic elements (Modern Tales of Faerie). No type is intrinsically better or worse than the next, and each comes with unique challenges. A book set in the Hundred Years’ War demands hours of exhaustive research. A series set in an original fantasy world requires hours of history-crafting, culture-weaving, and map-making. All great settings, however, have four things in common, and you can use this list to enhance any castle or carpark.
A great setting has something familiar. In a fantasy world, this often means traditional feudal societies and buildings inspired by real-life cottages, castles, and towns left from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Modern settings have it easy in this step. It’s fairly easy to find something from the world around you to incorporate into a story, even if that story is about millionaires, and you live paycheck to paycheck. We all ride in cars, buses, airplanes, and trains. We know what gas stations smell like.
The trick, in every setting, is to find something old and familiar that feels more like a sensory memory than a fact of daily life. We all have an idea of what gas stations smell like, but dig into your memory of childhood road trips, when you found comfort in the fact that the hot dogs rolling under heat lamps in Nevada smelled just like the hot dogs rolling under heat lamps in Tennessee. Look for the colorful gum on the sidewalks of your world, listen to the most annoying bird in the morning, and seek out details your senses remember as well as your mind.
What makes this setting stand out? Harry Potter wasn’t the first YA series to blend reality and fantasy, but the world sparkled and whispered in ways so many others did not. The magic system was new, and children (and adults, too – admit it) clamored to know their patronus, their Hogwarts house, etc. Even modern settings with no fantasy or science fiction elements can and should bring something new. Love it or hate it, Fifty Shades of Gray enjoyed so much attention because it blended two things people rarely associate – CEO elitism and bondage play. Look what’s been done before. Then go shopping for new parts.
Tread this step cautiously, but recognize every writer to come before you climbed it, too. There is nothing new under the sun, and that means to make a good stew, you have to use some ingredients others already stirred in their pots. Don’t be embarrassed, but be honest, and stay objective. Are you using fairytales to craft the setting of your world? Feel free to pay homage to the original source. Then dress them up in new clothes and set them loose. Take names (that aren’t copyrighted), or rebuild the golden paths of El Dorado. You borrow today. Someone will borrow from you tomorrow. Just be careful not to borrow too much, and always add several fresh coats of paint.
Throw chunks of your own love, hate, and fear into your setting. Do you hate the slush that follows a snow? Fill your roads squelching grey and brown ooze. Do you think fantasy worlds need more griffins? Toss them in by the handful. Carve cities with twisting roads like the ones in the old town where you always got lost. Keep the spring sky heavy with lazy clouds too depressed to even rain properly. Bring on the sweets you love and the vegetables you hate. Add color, sound, and smell to your setting. Offer a world that could only come from you.
Crafting a setting, like any step in writing, is equal parts science and passion. Write what you love, but do the research, consider what’s come before, and bring something fresh to your world. Your characters will thrive in that world, and the ensuing mayhem will make a great story.