Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Let's Get Ready to Write! Researching Your Novel: Setting

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy

Although I write fantasy, I do think that any world--fantasy or otherwise--can benefit from world building. Knowing where your story is set will determine the inherent problems your characters will face. Challenges in Manhattan are different from those in Montana. So even if you're writing about a gal from Ipanema, setting plays a big role.

For this post, let's assume you have a basic idea of the book you want to write. (coming up with ideas is another post) You know the general idea and are looking to develop that idea. This is the time when having nothing but a premise is just fine. You may not know what the core conflict is until you learn more about the story and its world.

With fantasy, the entire world needs to be created, so real world writers have a leg up here. You can go right ahead and start researching the place you've chosen. For those who don't know yet, it's time to pick or create a location.

If you're not set on a particular place yet, you might try looking at settings that match the tone of the story. A tale about isolation might work best in them middle of nowhere, or you might want to play off contrasts and set it in the biggest city in the world. A story with a character with a troubled past could work well somewhere where that past can do the most damage if revealed. Or a location that also has a trouble past to layer in your theme or character arcs.

Where Do You See This Story?

City or small town? Urban or rural? Rich or poor? Traditional or exotic? Hot or cold? Wet or dry? Is there a theme you want to explore? A character trait or background? Is there a culture you've always been fascinated with? A place? Look for details that sticks out and pique your interest. It doesn't matter if they're all over the place. I mixed Africa and Venice to create my city of Geveg.

Now Hit the Web
Take those basic descriptions and look up places that fit them. Some you'll throw out right away, but some will spark ideas, and you'll immediately see tons of possibilities on how your idea can fit into it. Find several places that work? Use them all if it works for your story. Unless you need to be accurate (like it's set in the real world in a known place) then you can mix and match and pull what you like. You don't need to delve deep at this point (unless you want to). The goal is to find ideas and get the brain thinking.

(Here's more on How to Make "Write What You Know" Work for You)


I like to look at the history of a place for ideas. Past shames create interesting dynamics between a people and a place, and those could be conflicts you can play with in your story. Obstacles that were overcome to settle there can be a source of pride that still exists years later. Risks taken to live there might be problems that occur to muck things up for your protagonist.

Geography and Climate
These details affect how people live, what they eat, how they make a living.What trees grown, what animals live there. What people there fear or have to protect themselves against. It can also determine religious views or morality. A port city is used to folks of all types coming and going, while a secluded mountaintop village might be more suspicious of those who are different. Where we live affects who we are, both on a community and individual level.


All cultures believe in something, and there will be variances even within those beliefs. Places with religious diversity will react to things differently than one with a central doctrine. How they live will reflect those beliefs same as any other defining characteristic. Look at the pyramids in Egypt. The great cathedrals of Europe. Shrines in Asia. Beliefs changed the look of the landscape, and that landscape played a part in how that culture developed.

(Here's more on Starting your Series: Worldbuilding, Research, and… When to Stop)

Narrow Down What Interests You

Eventually you'll have a stack of notes (or a folder of bookmarked sites) with all the things that made you think "ooo, that's cool." Look for things that really clicked with you. The ones that sparked ideas right away. Now, research those in more depth. Read books on the topics, travel guides, histories, biographies of important people, whatever grabs you. Take notes. Highlight sections and mark them to go back to. Create a file or folder and put in everything you think you can use or that inspires you. Write down how those things might fit into your story, even if they're just questions like: "Could something like this be part of the protagonist's past?"

(Here's more on Six Ways to Make Researching Easier)

Realize You're Not Using it All

You're looking for ideas and jumping off points, not information to tell the reader. You want your research to flesh out your setting and story so it feels real, not show that you did a lot of research and isn't this stuff really cool. That stuff stands out like bad product placement.

Craft Your Setting

Describe your world (be it a town, a city, a planet or a galaxy) and how it works. How day-to-day life works so I know how my protagonist lives day to day. Whatever details you like to use, get samples of those in there. Like what buildings look like, plants, animals, weather, ethnic traits, topography, technology, smells, sounds, textures, art styles, etc. This is where the research really pays off later, because you'll have descriptive details ready to go when you need them. Just look up what plants grow or what buildings there are made with and hand them to your protagonist.

(Here's more on Oh, That’s Not Right: Better to be Accurate or Do What’s Best for the Story?)

Let Your Research Guide You, but Not Control You

In the end, you should have a good idea of how this setting is going to aid your story. A good setting will have inherent conflicts that work with your plot or theme, let you show aspects of your characters in a way that flows naturally into the narrative, and helps convey some back story. It belongs with the story, and changing the location actually hurts the tale.

And it'll feel like you planned it all along, and didn't just plop your protagonist somewhere.

How much research do you do on your novels?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great explanation, as always. I'm bookmarking this for when I start researching my next idea and for when I'm revising my current MS. Thanks!

  2. Great suggestions. I remember when you posted on how you created your world for The Shifter too. That was super helpful too.

  3. I start with characters and muddle my way through the setting as I go along. People are my favorite parts of stories even though I love well crafted settings like yours. Worldbuilding is tedious to just sit down and do. It makes me lose focus on what I was excited about. My new story needed a few things worked out, but if I spend any more time on it, I'll get bored and be tempted to give up the whole thing. But I've got enough notes to get me started, sort of a rough sketch for what the big picture will be. I did actually draw a map showing the boundaries and where it fits on its part of the continent.

  4. It's nice to be reminded that it's okay to draw details from several different places. :)

  5. hey thanks so much for this! very helpful. and really mean it, not just trying to spam; been working on a futuristic novel and stuck on a few world-building things for a bit; this definitely helped.

    Best wishes,


  6. setting is difficult for me. i haven't worked it in to my novel draft very well. think i will take some of your advise here and research the setting a bit more. thanks for the reminder!

  7. Tracey: Most welcome!

    Natalie: I'm sure I'll be doing more world building posts since I'm doing a whole new one :)

    Jaleh: A lot of writers start with characters (and that's probably tomorrow's post). Nothing wrong with that, and if world building bores you, it's good to not do a lot before you start :) I do a lot of my fleshing out as I write, even though I like a solid foundation before I start.

    Chicory: You can do whatever you want with your story :) As long as it works, it works.

    Joel: Most welcome! There's lots more on world building on the blog. Just click on the "world building" label on the left hand menu.

    Shanonholly: It can be tough. Spending a little time on it first might help you integrate it into the novel better. I hope it does!

  8. Excellent post.

    I enjoy putting characters into a setting and environment and let them explore ideas through dialogue >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. Fabulous stuff here; I just "had" to save this in a Word doc for later. I also try to figure out what the best time of year would be--which ties into climate.

  10. Cold As Heaven: My first drafts are always dialog heavy. :)

    Carol: Another good tip. Weather can play such an important role and we don't always think about it.