Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Setting the Scene

It's Lisa Harris here, looking forward to chatting with you about settings and scenes. I've spent the past couple weeks researching 1920's New York City for my next release with Summerside Press and have found it fascinating. Between gangsters, food, fashion and music, miles of busy intersections and looming skyscrapers, New York City became the perfect contrast I needed to the wide open savannahs of Africa where the first half of my novel is set.

Setting needs to be more than simply the place where your heroine lives, but how do you do this? First, it means searching for those small facts that will take a cardboard setting and turn it into a living, breathing character as you seamlessly weave those details into your story.

I recently spend over an hour searching for a specific detail I wanted to use in my story. In the end, I found exactly what I was looking for and used it in a brief sentence that no one will probably notice. But if I left out all the details like this, the reader would certainly notice the empty stage.


Before you can write about the setting you need to see it first in your own mind. While visiting in person is obviously the best option, if you can’t do this, the Internet makes it possible for us to visit our settings virtually. Recently, while sitting at my desk in Mozambique, I was able to compare historic maps with modern maps of New York City to find out exactly where my heroine stays. I was able to find photos of specific street corners and street scenes from websites like Sepiatown, video footage from You Tube, and even floor plans of houses from that period by searching houses for sale today that were built during my time period.

Once you have a picture in your mind of what your setting looks like, ask yourself these following questions.

*Does my setting play an important role in the story?

*If I were to plop down the story a thousand miles to the west instead of at its current location, would it change my story? (It should!)

*Have I included the culture, dress, and etiquette of my setting and time period?

*Does my hero or heroine have an emotional attachment to the setting?

*Does what my hero or heroine see, hear, and smell in this setting bring back memories for them, either good or bad?

*Have I subtly woven rich, descriptions into the storyline that give the reader a visual picture of the setting?

If you said yes to these questions, then you’re on the right track of making your setting a viable character in your story, but let’s take a moment and take it one step further.

Once you’ve captured the essence of the setting, study the setting of the actual scenes in your story. How many times have you read characters eating in a cafĂ©, or chatting in someone’s living room and wanted to yawn? You can use your setting to add both a uniqueness and depth to the story.

For example, for my New York City scenes, I scoured the Internet for unique places to use like subways, carousels, and chocolate factories to set my scenes. And while you’re there, don’t forget to add some of the five senses to every scene. Don’t just tell us about the colorful carousel, let us hear the children laughing and the mothers talking, smell the popcorn and peanuts in the air, and feel the rhythmic motion of the carousel.

Is the effort really worth it?

Yes! I recently heard from an editor who had just finished reading one of my manuscripts. She said, “The beauty is in the details, and your details lend these books a terrific air of credibility…In places, the book is so startlingly visual that I felt like I was watching a movie instead of reading a book!”

Think about the last book you read that pulled you into another setting and let you see the story, particularly if it was a place you’d never visited before. What did you see, hear, feel, and touch, that made it memorable? As writers, this is what we want the editors and readers to experience. The beauty of a story is in the details. Which will make all the work you put into your story worth it!

I’d love to hear from you? What resources and techniques do you use to add to your setting and bring it to life?

Lisa Harris is an award-winning author of twenty novels and novellas. She lives with her husband and their three children in Mozambique, Africa, where they work as missionaries. When she’s not busy writing or home schooling, she loves traveling, cooking different ethnic foods, and going on game drives through the African bush.

Visit her website or her blog for information on her latest release, Blood Ransom, and her other books.


  1. Great research ideas, Lisa. Aren't we lucky to have the Internet resources at our fingertips? As to making a setting real, I sometimes do a free, long-hand writing exercise, just to put me in the mood. I start with "I remember when. . ." or "I'm standing on the corner or Portage and Main . . ." and just write for ten minutes, no taking the pen off the paper, no editing, no stopping. Once I've rooted my imagination in the setting, the details fall naturally into my story.

  2. That's a great idea, Alice! Once we can see the setting in our own mind it does make the actual writing and filling in the details come so much easier.

  3. Lisa, fascinating post! Thanks for sharing your setting research tips with us :-)

  4. Definitely makes me want to read some of your stuff, which I haven't yet. I hate books with generic locations.

  5. Enjoyed your thoughts very much, Lisa. I have often wished I had taken more notes over the years of various places we have visited and especially where spent several days. However, I was made very aware several months ago that over years settings can change so it is still wise to check them again. Back in the early 1990's I set my first few novels where I grew up on the black soil plains of the Darling Downs in Queensland. Then it was grain growing country with only a very few small dams on some properties. Now the crops are very different, especially the huge, unfenced cotton paddocks as well as many huge dams for irrigation!

  6. Thanks for your comments, LeAnne and Mary! Writing this post brought back memories of some of my first writings. Setting was generic and I often knew nothing about my characters beyond what was in the story line. i would even leave out significant things like their careers if I didn't use that information. (Hero returned from his job at the office...) It simply wasn't something I thought about.

    I've always been a bit nervous about using real places for contemporaries because, you're right, Mary, places do change. But with research and the internet, we now can do it much more accurately.

  7. Thanks for a fascinating post,Lisa. Having just read Blood Ransom, set in Central Africa, I identified with so many of the "little touches" that made the scenes come alive. Living in Africa as I do, I could see,feel, and smell many of the situations your heroine found herself in.
    Great read for any of you haven't read it yet!

  8. Thanks for the plug for Blood Ransom, Shirl!