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Its all about the place and time.

The lovely Fiona Harper took this shot of me - in full swing... although somewhat dwarfed by the projector screen.

The lovely Fiona Harper took this shot of me – in full swing… although somewhat dwarfed by the projector screen.


I was at the fabulous RNA conference last weekend – where I delivered a workshop on how to use settings more effectively in a book.

My workshop was at 9 AM the morning after the Gala Dinner – but despite the late night party, a large number of hearty souls were up and about early – thanks for coming.

A few were still not actually able to focus well enough to make notes, so for those and for anyone else who might find it useful – here are some of my notes.

Setting is three things – time, place and reality.

Time and place are easy to understand – reality refers to the world you create – especially a  sci fi or fantasy world.

Your setting frames the story – and also puts the reader in the right frame of mind for your book.

Choose a setting appropriate to your theme – many themes can be set anywhere, but some themes can be more clearly illustrated in a particular setting.

Look for the obvious and appropriate setting – then look for the opposite. Sometimes that will work even better to highlight your theme.

The setting should throw focus onto the characters and help give them depth. When you meet your key characters, fill in their surroundings. A reader can learn a lot about a character from the places they inhabit. And also fill their backstory with places – especially childhood places as these help define the adult.

A perfect example of setting contributing to the book - a dark and violent setting adding depth to a dark and violent novel.

A perfect example of setting contributing to the book – a dark and violent setting adding depth to a dark and violent novel.

Always remember the negative – places can reveal your characters’ strengths – or their fatal flaws.

Settings can help develop plot. Taking a character out of their comfort zone can prompt an emotional or unreasonable reaction. A setting can give one character dominance over another if they are in their own place. And think of the possibilities of placing your character in a setting they cannot control.

Settings can help create a mood. You can use settings to manipulate not just your characters’ emotions – but also those of your reader.

To make the most of your setting, you have to bring it to life on the page with just the right amount of description. Use all the senses – hearing, sight, touch, small, taste – so the reader feels as if they are really there. Use settings to generate emotions. Fear, frustration, relief, uncertainty, excitement, impatience, joy, awe can all be caused by a place.

Use all the properties of a setting – the weather, the physical characteristics of the place, the reaction of the other people in that place. All this will add layers to your scene.

If you get it right, the setting itself can became a character in its own right. One of the reviews of Flight To Coorah Creek said – I wish this town was real. I want to go and live there. That’s just what I was hoping for.


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14 Responses to Its all about the place and time.

  • Thanks Janet. Missed this one as was torn between yours and the other scheduled at the same time (and was too bleary-eyed after the gala dinner to make a decision!) Great to have the notes and very useful they are too.

    • My pleasure Georgia. I had a couple of those conflicts too – there’s always so much on offer. Happy to share where I can. J X

  • Thanks for sharing this, Janet – great for those of us who couldn’t be there. I always love a story where the setting becomes a character in itself.

    • Thanks Angela – I am always very in tune with settings in books – and nothing bothers me more than when it’s done wrong. I once read a book set on board a racing yacht in the southern ocean. The couple might just as well have been in a caravan at Bognor for all the setting added to the story. Such a waste of a great setting. It’s one of the reasons behind my Antarctic cruise setting in Bring Me Sunshine. I wanted to see if I could do better. J.

  • I know from your books, Janet, that you take the reader with you with your brilliant descriptions; I remember ‘hearing’ the crackle of a bush fire and almost inhaling the smoke in one of your novels.
    You make an interesting point about filling the backstory with places to help define the characters. I am particularly interested in the changing seasons and the affect they have on the story.
    I also think that authentic descriptions of place can help sell a book.

    • Thanks for the kind words Heather – I am glad you tasted the smoke (in a literary sense of course ). I agree totally about the changing seasons – they can have a huge impact on a story. If I cant ‘see’ the setting in a book in my head, I don’t enjoy it as much. In the US in particular, small town series are really popular – which readers coming back again and again to the same small town for their stories. I love them – and that’s what I hope I can do with my Coorah Creek Books. J X

  • What a coincidence. Right at this very moment I have Wuthering Heights open at p. 268 on my kindle beside me. I’m doing chapter summaries for an Study Guide app for English students and I’ve been interested to note that there are no great reams of description of the moors. The setting is far more subtly conveyed.

    Thanks for the blog post, Janet!

    • That’s part of the genius of it, isn’t it Beverley. The moors are so important to the story – they are always there, but its done so well it doesn’t pull you out of the story. J.

  • Thanks for the notes, Janet. I had to catch a flight so I missed this workshop but it’s a really interesting subject.

  • Great post, Janet. As I said to you at the conference, I’ve just utilised two passages from your book ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ to illustrate how to experience setting via character and the students were really impressed with your technique.

  • It was a fab workshop and of great interest to me as a writer who uses Dorset for inspiration. Thank you for posting the notes, Janet 🙂

    • Thanks Laura – I think any place can be inspiring – its all in the way you look at it. I’ve only been to Dorset a couple of times – it found it really lovely.

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Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild OneColorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild One
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