A few years ago, I was asked to contribute to a horror anthology. The only problem – I had written one horror story in my entire career. I really wanted to do it, though. The theme was so cool, it was a paid gig, and I’d always wanted to tell a ghost story, so I said yes without much more to go on than the prompt provided by the editors. If this sounds stressful, it was, and, as the deadline approached, things still weren’t coming together.
As a writer, many things can contribute to a story that won’t gel, including weak character arcs, meandering plot lines, or erratic pacing. If you need help sorting out a messy manuscript, read more HERE. For me, with this project, I didn’t have a sense of the time or place. I was used to writing futuristic worlds, ones with cool tech and odd planets, but the setting of this story was New England, circa 1900, and I simply couldn’t get a handle on it.
Luckily, I attended a weekend wedding in a beautiful, old New England town. The hosts planned an outing to a historical village, the kind where the volunteers dress in period styles and go about the day-to-day work as if they were real inhabitants. I soaked up the sights, sounds, and smells, immersing myself in the culture and history of that time. Lo and behold, my imagination woke right up and pieces of the story began to coalesce.
Sometimes, setting can feel like a character of its own. A dark cave, water dripping somewhere in the distance, the house on the hill with broken shutters and a rickety gate, a gloomy forest, trees hidden in the fog. You get the idea. Whether your setting provides the backdrop for one scene, or for a good portion of the story, bringing it to life in an authentic way will contribute to your reader’s experience.
Here are some tips on how to bring your setting to life and use it to enhance your terrifying tale…
First, immerse yourself.
Take a walk in the woods at dusk – with your big dog and trusty flashlight of course! If you’re writing about a real place, do your research. Visit if you can. I recently toured the Lizzy Borden house, site of an infamous double-murder. Being in that physical space was a sensory experience I won’t soon forget! Even if a scene is set in somewhere entirely made up, whether it be a room in an old Victorian mansion, or a cabin on a starship, develop a clear picture in your own imagination before you write about it.
If you have the details in your mind, you can strategically sprinkle them into your narrative with authenticity. Rather than info dumping on your readers, you can deliver information about setting in dynamic and interesting ways.
Describe the setting using multiple senses.
Our first tendency is to describe things visually, and that’s great. We take in a lot of information through our sight – blood red fingernails, gray fog clinging to the forest floor, the shadow of light cast by a single bulb. But it isn’t our only sense, and we can give readers powerful descriptions of setting using our other senses. The cloying scent of cotton candy at the carnival, the cold, the smooth feel of a marble gravestone, the salty taste of seawater as the wave crashes overhead. Engaging multiple senses gives the reader a varied, fuller experience.
Show your characters interacting with the setting.
The setting is only relevant as it relates to your characters or plot action. You can explore setting details by having characters interact with their surroundings. If the main character in your story is a witch, show them at their long, wooden table chopping fragrant herbs to make a charm. If they’re a ghost hunter investigating a haunted house, have them stumble on the hidden trap door.
To bring the setting of your story to life, give readers more than just the bare facts. They need to know why the setting matters to the story and see how your characters interact with it. With a little creativity and skill, we can give them a vivid, multi-sensory experience, build the tension, and deliver important information about characters and plot.