This is How to Efficiently Evoke the Setting of a Novel

by Joe Bunting | 12 comments

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.

setting of a novel

Photo by Giulio Magnifico

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?

PRACTICE

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!

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.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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12 Comments

  1. Jevon Knights

    This is very interesting. I can see how the connection can be made with historical fiction, but I’m still wondering if it applies to a fantasy writer like myself.

    The fictional news might only reveal the time period if it’s related to actual news, or maybe if it references technology that existed at that time period.

    Do you think fictional news can give details about setting even technology or real events are not referenced?

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      It might not, Jevon, especially if your setting is more antiquated and the news isn’t as central to the culture. But to answer your question, yes, fictional news can absolutely give details about setting. See my note above about J.K. Rowling’s use of the Daily Prophet.

  2. TheCody

    I woke to the incessant buzzing of my cell phone. Again. Groaning, I flipped over and looked at the caller ID. It was my best friend, Randy. God dammit, he liked to call when he knew I’d be asleep and just blather on about random shit. He thought it was hilarious. Even when I didn’t answer, he got a rise from knowing he’d woken me up.

    What made me reach for the green button was the number of times he’d called. Eight. It was his eighth call in a half hour. Sadly, the thought that ran through my head was, He got a DWI at 9 in the morning.

    “Hello,” I said, trying to sound as tired as possible.

    “Turn on the TV,” Randy demanded.

    “Huh?” I said.

    “Dude, turn on your TV! Something big’s happening.”

    The one TV I owned was in the living room. I would have to get up and walk the whole twenty steps to reach it. Worse still, I’d lost the remote months ago. The effort didn’t sound like fun, so I pressed on for more information.

    “Why? What happened?”

    “They’re gone!”

    I squinted at the phone. “What’s gone?”

    “The twin towers. In New York. They’re gone!”

    OK you’d think I would have flown up and raced to the television, right?

    I didn’t. You have to understand, Randy was the most honest guy I knew…when it came to his personal life. With politics and current affairs, he stretched the truth like hot taffy. When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, I heard, “Dude, Oklahoma City has been destroyed!”

    Therefore, I kept pressing; cornered, Randy usually fessed up.

    “They’re gone?” I said, skeptical.

    “Yes!”

    “So they’ve been destroyed?”

    He paused. “Well, something’s happening to them.”

    His tone was noncommittal, which did it for me. I assumed maybe some windows blew out or someone had a flat tire in the vicinity. Boring.

    To get Randy off my back, I said, “Wow! OK I’m going to the television now and will call you back.”

    When the line was dead, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

    Reply
    • Young_Cougar

      Wow, this was hilarious.(Not the twin towers part..) I know just what the character feels, I’ve got the same kind of people in my life. Great job cody!

  3. Alyssa Phillips

    Apparently setting is really important to me, and one in particular. No matter what I sit down to write it always ends up being set in a small Texas town during the summer. I know I just need to follow it and see where it leads but it’s still a little annoying.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Interesting, Alyssa. Faulkner tried to escape his setting. He moved to NYC, tried to make it as a writer there. It didn’t work so well, and he eventually had to give into his setting. Maybe it’s time to stop running away from it?

    • Sandra D

      interesting. Yeah I would say give it a try. There is something about this place that needs your exploring.

  4. Marcy Mason McKay

    You’re so right, Joe. The larger world around our novels helps evoke the mood to our novels and add richness. It’s sort of the story-behind-the story. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Agreed, Marcy. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Young_Cougar

    Mera Vanilla hummed to the latest AMV of Skip Beat! her friend had posted and wondered what she could do for the next couple nights. Her parents had been called away urgently to some hospital on the other side of the states, and she was left babysitting her kid brothers. To tell the truth she was a bit pissed, I mean it was Summer, and she should be hanging with her friends somewhere…

    Now getting into the groove of the song, Mara took off her headphone and pumped up the volume.

    Knock! Knock!

    Mara got up to get the door, “Yup?”

    Jamine, the little baby, pushed the landline phone into her nose. “It’s for you.”

    “Thanks, babe,” Mara winked as she showed Jamien into her room, and headed back to her computer. “Hello?”

    “OMG! Mara you will not believe who I ran into at the BEACH!!”

    Mara froze…”You’re at the beach?”

    “Yup,” and after heartlessly piercing her heart, her friend continued merrily. “So, Erik was like…”

    “Humm,” with one ear open, Mara shuffled through the news post on MSN.Com. Apparently Russian had invaded Ukraine. Hugh…what the hell was that about. Shrugging, Mara concentrated back to her conversation with her friend. If she wasn’t at the beach, she might as well hear about it.

    – My writing is a bit stiff and I’m not sure I actually got the whole objective of the practice write but I’m happy about it. It’s been a while since I’ve been here and written something. School and finals were hectic.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Great start. I enjoyed how you captured the characters’ voice in this piece. I like how you wove in the news. I might have dwelt on that a little more, as right now it feels pretty extraneous, almost a distraction from the main point. Perhaps have her bring it up in the dialogue with her friend. Talk about why she’s looking up the news in the first place. What’s her motivation?

      This could be a fun character though. I hope you had fun writing this!

    • Young_Cougar

      Ok,….let me give it another try.

      Mera Vanilla hummed to the latest AMV of Skip Beat! her friend had posted and wondered what she could do for the next couple nights. Her parents had been called away urgently to some hospital on the other side of the states, and she was left babysitting her kid brothers. To tell the truth she was a bit pissed, I mean it was Summer, and she should be hanging with her friends somewhere…

      Now getting into the groove of the song, Mara took off her headphone and pumped up the volume.

      Knock! Knock!

      Mara got up to get the door, “Yup?”

      Jamine, the little baby, pushed the landline phone into her nose. “It’s for you.”

      “Thanks, babe,” Mara winked as she showed Jamien into her room, and headed back to her computer. “Hello?”

      “OMG! Mara you will not believe who I ran into at the BEACH!!”

      Mara froze…”You’re at the beach?”

      “Yup,” and after heartlessly piercing her heart, her friend continued merrily. “So, Erik was like…”

      “Humm,” with one ear open, Mara shuffled through the news post on MSN.Com. Apparently Russian had invaded Ukraine. Hugh…what the hell was that about.

      “Hey,Sara,” Mara cut of her friend mercilessly, and clicked on the news link. “Did you hear anything about an invasion recently…”

      Pause. Awkwardness ensues…… “Um…no, no I haven’t…but anyway Erik was like-”

      Great, just like always. Feeling tired, Mara leaned her forehead onto the desk; just like always her friend had paused, and deflected the momentarily outbreak of Mara-the-geek and pushed further into la-la land of Sara Makeal. I wonder if I should feel insulted…

      Mara shrugged and concentrated back to her friends conversation. If she wasn’t at the beach, she might as well hear about it.

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