How do you evoke a full sense of the time and setting of a novel? One way to quickly make sure your readers know exactly where they are (and when) is to write about the news.
How Do You Evoke Setting in a Novel?
Setting is one of the most important elements of any story.
What would Gone With the Wind be without the setting of the South and the American Civil War?
Would Catcher in the Rye be as interesting if it didn't take place in the exclusive prep schools and jazz clubs of the New York City elite?
And would Sherlock Holmes have been nearly as fascinating a character if he did his detecting in Ipswitch rather than London in the heady throes of Victorian Imperial England?
A case could certainly be made that any of these stories could have been set elsewhere and still been good works of art, but what makes each of them interesting is that they clearly evoked a very interesting place in a very interesting time. Setting matters, and one of the reasons we love the stories we do is because of the setting in which they take place.
With that in mind, how do you evoke setting?
Pay Attention to the News
Good storytellers pay attention to current events and use the stories going on every day around all of us. Why? Because if you mention the Watergate scandal it evokes a very particular time in American history, and the same is true if you mention the wives of King Henry VIII, or the first man on the moon, or the moment when the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
Just mentioning a news event will instantly place your story into a certain time and a certain place, and if that news story is well known, it might even color your entire story with the emotions your reader felt during that event.
Great writers know this, and they have often used current events to give their stories a deeper sense of time and place. Even Jane Austen, who was one of the least “news focused” writers ever, mentions the slave trade and the English abolition movement in her novel Mansfield Park.
The bottom line is that using the news is one of the most efficient tools to develop your story's setting that you have.
Even Fantasy and Science Fiction Authors Can Use the News
But what if you write fantasy or science fiction, which both take place in alternate realities and often won't have the same news stories available?
Even then, you can still use the news to better develop your story's setting.
Think about Harry Potter and the oft-appearing stories from The Daily Prophet. Even though she was writing about a world that doesn't actually exist (even though many of us would like it to!), J.K. Rowling invented a newspaper and news events to put in it as a world building device to draw us deeper into her stories. She was writing fantasy; she didn't have to make up the news for her story to work. But she did, and her choice to involve the news of her imaginary world helped readers get a fuller sense of the world her characters lived in.
Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or literary fiction, writing about the news can help you develop your setting and draw your readers into the world of your story. Give it a try!
Have you ever written about the news in your stories? What is a current story that would be interesting to include in a story?
Write a story that somehow involves a current news story. The news story can either be the central plot or a peripheral event going on in the background. It's up to you. To find one, you can choose a headline from one of the news sites I've included below or find your own!
- The New York Times
- The Guardian
- The New Yorker (great for a deeper look into a few current events)
- The Wall Street Journal
Write about your chosen news story for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give some feedback on a few other practices by other writers.