Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Familiar and Unfamiliar Settings, by Janet Sketchley

One of the things I appreciate about International Christian Fiction Writers blog is the variety of settings and time periods, on earth and in speculative realms, from writers worldwide.

Paula Vince has introduced me to present­ day Australia, Christine Lindsay to India at the close of the British Raj, and Heather Day Gilbert to Viking settlements. Plus I've had plenty of exposure to parts of the US and to the UK. There are so many more books to explore, as time and money allow.

As a reader, I think these are exotic settings. Truth told, I don't enjoy reading novels set in places I know well. My internal fact­-checker kicks in, and I lose my connection to the story because I'm asking questions, like, "would she really drive that route?" or "why would they choose that shopping area when this one's closer?" Even if the writer created a fictional location, if I know the turf, I'm trying to figure out where it is.

As a writer, I have trouble evoking a strong sense of place if the setting isn't one I've experienced. There are universal elements of small towns, big cities, and seaports, to be sure, but I'd be lost on things like weather patterns and local attitudes.

Because I wrote my first novel, Heaven's Prey, hoping for a US publisher, it does have American scenes as well as Canadian. I did research, and I also focused more on the people than the surroundings. The only geography integral to the story was local to me, and I knew it well. The second novel, Secrets and Lies, is set in Toronto, a city I've visited but don't know well. The only scene set in a specific, real location didn't come fully to life until I spent an afternoon there with my camera.

Book three, Without Proof, released last month, and it's set in my home province of Nova Scotia, Canada. I found it easier to immerse myself in the story world because I'd experienced it. Now, the challenge was to not turn the novel into a tourist brochure. I've read books like that, and they're not fun.

I'm planning to set my next series locally as well, and this has been part of finding what works best for me as a writer. Perhaps it's one aspect of my voice. Familiarity makes me discount the appeal of Atlantic Canada to readers, but most of the world isn't from here. This is your chance to visit.

My stories are still people­ and ­plot first, but settings do influence those things. For a fine example of how setting can be integral to the story, see Sara Goff's post from September.

What about you? Do you prefer to "write what you know" geographically, or to discover new settings, real or imagined? When you read, what do you look for (or avoid) in a setting? Or does it matter?

Janet Sketchley lives in Atlantic Canada, where she writes Christian suspense novels and blogs about faith and books. She loves Jesus and her family, and enjoys reading, worship music, and tea.

You can find Janet online at, and fans of Christian suspense are invited to join her writing journey through her monthly newsletter:

Without Proof page (includes purchase links):

Sample Chapter:­content/uploads/2015/10/Without­Proof­Excerpt.pdf



Amazon Author Central:




  1. Oh, I'm the same way, Janet! I need to have had breathed the air of the places I write about, or at least spent a few nights. Best is when I've lived in the location. That would be the upside to moving around a lot. Thank you for this post. Like you, I also appreciate the diversity at ICFW!

  2. See, there's an upside to everything, even frequent moves! Anything is fodder for writing.

    Sara, you definitely nailed the feel of NYC in your novel :)

  3. I'm from New Zealand, and while I'd love to read Christian novels with a NZ setting, they are few and far between. The result is most settings I read are foreign, although I do love to read settings I know (as long as the descriptions are accurate).

    (But my own stories will be set right here in the Land of the Long White Cloud!)

    1. Awesome, Iola -- a chance to introduce your home turf to readers around the world :)

  4. Settings must be on the brain! I'm talking about them here tomorrow, too, as I'm currently "in" Martha's Vineyard researching my next book. :D

    1. Virtually "in," Sandra, or really there? Google does help a whole lot.

  5. I prefer to write about places I've actually seen, or at least very close to where I've been. Only exception was Shadowed in Silk when for my first book I just did heaps and heaps of research and had someone who lived there check it for cutlural accuracy. Then for Book 2 I actually went to India. :o) One of the highlights of my life.

    1. Christine, that would be a highlight indeed. I've never been to India (nor back in time to the close of the British rule) but Shadowed in Silk felt like you absolutely nailed the setting with your research. Your series is one of the first ones I mention in any conversation about settings that come alive.

  6. Like you, Janet, I like to read about places I've never been. But I haven't been successful writing about real places that I'm not familiar with. It just isn't convincing. Perhaps that's why I like to write about places that exist only in my imagination -- I know them well because they're part of me!

    1. Yvonne, you sure made Gannah feel like a real place!