Writing a Successful Setting

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Setting is in an integral part of your story and should be treated as an additional, albeit silent, character in your book. Readers should feel, smell, hear, see, and, possibly, taste your setting but, as a writer, you shouldn’t be whacking them over the head with a bloated, boring description.

Sample 1: Lecturing your readers into boredom

It was late afternoon on a foggy Fall day in the seaside, Rhode Island Village of Pawtuxet and the year was 1983. The playground was covered with leaf piles, a kaleidoscope of dirty confetti. One sub-par mother, Evie McFagan, a slovenly, ill-dressed, ill-prepared-for-motherhood type of woman dragged her child over to a paint-flecked boat. The vessel served as a sandbox and Evie plopped her daughter, Savannah, down amongst the leaves.

All tell, no show. All the important details are smashing into your face and you’re skimming ahead to see if anything happens. Boring.

Sample 2: Layering in an Invisible Character, aka your Setting

Village Playground
Pawtuxet Village, Rhode Island
October 25, 1983
3:43 PM

On the first day of her undoing, Evie McFagan squinted through the fog as she massaged a hangover behind her right temple. At her feet, fallen leaves, once brilliant as new taffeta, rustled around like a soiled shame-filled prom dress.  

“Don’t eat that mulch,” she barked at her three-year-old daughter, Savannah.

The stench of brackish waters filled her nose and the thrust and pull of rusty swings set her teeth on edge as she fished through her worn-out pockets.

“Um, yeah, snacks,” she mumbled and stared into her hand–a valet ticket, a cocktail napkin, and several bits of gray lint stared inedibly back at her.

The sub-heading with the place, date, and time saves you the painful job of describing these important items and allows the reader to be aware of the setting without a slog through details. Your main character can interact with their natural habitat without it seeming forced or unnatural. This allows you, the writer, to get to the action faster.

Know your Setting inside and out

Wherever you choose to set your story, make sure you know it better than anyone. Writing about a location you know intimately is the easiest route. Think of Stephen King. Where did he grow up and where does he still live for part of the year? Answer: Maine. Where do 90% of his stories take place? Answer: Maine. There’s a reason for this, besides the obvious–he’s a master writer–yes there’s that. However, Uncle Stevie hit the ground running because the settings of his stories already reside in his memories, experiences, and day-to-day life. He is beyond intimately familiar with Maine. Maine oozes from his soul. What location oozes from your soul?

My Setting does not ooze from DNA

You’re a writer, fake it. Get a notebook or start a new file on your laptop and start filling it with notes, maps, and photos. The devil is literally in the details. Know your place like you’ve lived there your whole life, then write your story. Allow all your location setting research (or creative world-building) to come through in layers. Dole it out subtly. Be creative with it. Show us, don’t tell us. Take your time. Tolkien didn’t create several languages, maps, species, and worlds in an hour. Remember that.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com


  1. Writing is a talent, not all are blessed with this skill. The reader will be mentally asking these questions, and the longer you keep the information from them, the less they will focus on what you want them to focus on. The reader will become more removed from the story and the characters, and instead be trying to figure out the where, when, who, or why. Your word power is awesome. Loved this post very much.

    • Heather Rigney on

      Thank you for your kind words and I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the post. Best of luck with your writing endeavors. -Heather

    • Heather Rigney on

      You’re welcome! Thank you for reading and responding to my post. Like life, writing is all about the little details, isn’t it? Hope your writing is running smooth and successful. Best, Heather

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