Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
Moderator/Editor: Katy Pool
Foody: Hogwarts from Harry Potter is one of my grandest archetypes of magical worlds, especially because many of the stories I write take place in semi-modern fantasy settings. I’m forever in awe of the fact that I know floors of St. Mungo’s hospital, the titles and authors of various textbooks, brands of broomsticks and wands and clothes, favorite candies, spells and potions. The detail is extravagant and delicious. That is what makes the world real. That is what I try to achieve, on some level, in my stories. Another honorable mention includes La Cirque des Reves in The Night Circus.
Axie: All the settings in HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, including not just the castle which runs around, but also the town of Market Chipping where Sophie’s family owns a hat shop, the seaside town of Porthaven, the royal capital of Kingsbury and even the Waste where the Witch resides. Other favorite settings include: Longbourn, Netherfield Park and Pemberly, Lyra’s Oxford, and Westeros. Like Foody said, it’s the feel of all these places—they feel real, lived in, filled with specific details.
Askhaya: I’m going to second Foody here with the wizarding world. I think it’s one of the most complex worlds, but it’s that specificity that makes you want to live there.
But I also love settings that leave an impression on me with a specific atmosphere or vibe. I love Khorasan from THE WRATH AND THE DAWN. The food and the clothes and the descriptions made me want to live in a palace in the desert for weeks after I finished reading. Or the Night Bazaar from THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN. I felt the sheer amazement and wonder and slight terror of being surrounded by all these dangerous and decadent magical objects. I think those types of atmospheric settings are ones that especially stand out to me.
Melody: Aside from Hogwarts… I will never not be fascinated by the home settings of the characters in Delirium by Lauren Oliver because of the contrast (or lack thereof) in how the characters act behind closed doors vs. out in public. Also, as others have mentioned, the attention to detail, especially the smallest details of a world, of a setting, really can shift your entire perspective on the who and how a conflict plays out in said setting. In the After by Demitira Lunetta does not have a lot of settings but I absolutely loved how Amy’s home was a place of refuge until it wasn’t. And some authors who just nail setting no matter what they’re writing…Holly Black, Mindy McGinnis, to name a few.
Foody: There are a few keys here, the main one being how this smaller setting interacts with the world at large. Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley serve similar but different purposes in Harry Potter, and the clientele and atmosphere have very different descriptions. Just like every description needs to serve a grander purpose and building the atmosphere around it, every mini-setting has to do the same to the larger one. What does it say about the world? How does your character feel while in it? Does it appear multiple times in the plot, and how are those plot points affected by taking place there versus somewhere else?
Axie: I feel like larger settings get established early on—as in described and made apparent—and then sort of act as a background hum to the whole story throughout. Going with the music analogy, smaller settings are the accompaniment (musical background) to the melody of the scene. The focus of a scene isn’t (necessarily) the setting. The focus of a scene is your characters changing, coming up against conflicts and resolving them. I always think to myself, how can I use the setting to make the focus/goal of the scene memorable?
Melody: I love what’s been said about how each setting serves a distinct purpose. This makes me think of the emotional investment in a setting… what does the setting represent to each character, how does it help and hurt them? What is the theme in all of this? I think having a theme and clarity on your setting’s purpose, big or small, will make juggling everything a lot smoother so definitely don’t speed through this (especially smaller settings, because while it might be background, it makes more of an impact than you realize).
Foody: I don’t usually seek out visual references for settings, as much as I do for characters. Normally it’s all imagination. I try to build atmosphere in my settings in two ways: nouns and adjectives that build aesthetic, versus verbs that build a moody undercurrent. Nouns are loud, verbs are quiet. I’m not so interested in describing exactly what a place looks like as I am creating a collage of images for the reader to paint that picture themselves. A place of doilies and cream puffs and tiered meringue tea cakes gives a very specific sort of feel. Once I lay that groundwork for the atmosphere in my descriptions, the setting develops a natural complexity by how the characters interact with it.
I write fairly bare bones in my early drafts, especially in the middle part of my books where I’m mentally fatigued. Setting details are usually added in throughout every revision, expanding the world each new description at a time.
Akshaya: I’m not naturally creative with my settings so it’s usually an exercise on its own where I take some time to think about what kind of smaller settings can exist within the context of the larger world and how to make them work with my story. But I do use visual references when I’m stuck. By which I obviously mean I go on pinterest for 3 hours and pretend I’ve been very productive.
Axie: I use visual references when I’m drafting. Usually I’ll make a Pinterest board filled with images. These provide a starting point, especially when I’m stuck. When I’m stuck, I’ll use the images as a prompt to just get myself to write. In revisions though, I try to really focus on those specific and unique details to make the setting surprise and delight. I like what Foody said about adding and layering in setting. I do that. I also word vomit and then clean it up. Hopefully my settings don’t end up as gross as that last sentence did.
Melody: It’s difficult to describe how I develop setting because the settings usually come first to me and once I sit down to start writing the world and settings within out on paper, it kind of all comes at once. That is is the “easiest” and most fun for me because it just spills out. (It sounds nice but when you’ve got an epic world and awesome settings but no awesome plot to match, oh man…who else out there knows my struggle?!) I don’t use visual references for my settings initially, unless I come across something in my research that I find useful. Aside from that, depending on what I’m working on, I’ll make mood boards either for fun or while revising to inspire me to dig deeper into the tone and heart of the setting.
Also, revisions is the perfect place to really zero in on unnecessary settings… it’s the opportunity to push yourself into making sure your characters are in places that will push them forward or hold them back. Make sure you’re not writing your characters in places that are just convenient for you to get through a scene, really think about why you put them there.
Foody: Scenes can be made distinctly more interesting by where they take place, especially if they contrast to the action of the scene. I try to rely on these contrasts especially during chapters of info-dumping. For instance, the opening scene of Daughter of the Burning City, is actually a grand heap of character description a la the Freak Show cast that feels more dynamic because, underneath it all, Sorina is using the show as an opportunity to steal a valuable possession from a patron.
Axie: Just thinking to myself now, I think all scenes directly relate to where they’re happening. Which isn’t true, I know. For example, I know a person can have a super meaningful conversation in parking lot or in a sauna or in a helicopter. Although, I would argue, just because a scene could happen anywhere, doesn’t mean you should set it anywhere. Set it in a place that most enhances that scene. I’m thinking of a particular scene in REBEL where two of my characters have a huge argument in the street. It’s just in a street, right? But…no. They grew up on the streets together as orphans. So it’s a fitting setting for them to release their pent up feelings.
Akshaya: Hmm I don’t know if I separate this actually… I always have characters interact with a setting by moving around or touching/studying things. Even with a familiar setting, showing just how or why it’s familiar can make it compelling. In my opinion, it’s important to figure out why a scene needs to take place in a specific location. If you change the setting and the scene is exactly the same, that might be something worth looking at.
Melody: I feel like settling your feet in the sands of your setting really connects deeper to the themes of what we’re unconsciously writing so that’s maybe why the setting will become more rich as you dig deeper into revisions. Because if you’re not already in tune with the setting from the get go, you’ll discover what’s important (or not so) about the settings you’ve chosen
Foody: All of my books take place in microsettings, as in an entire fantasy world rooted around a single city or a single location, such as the Gomorrah Festival or the city of New Reynes. I’m not really positive why I gravitate toward these, as both a reader and a writer–probably because I just find them really fun. I like feeling swept away into the world as much as the story, and for me, microsettings are just my favorite way of achieving that.
Axie: I don’t have a preference in reading, although with journey plots, I do prefer the story to come full circle. Like in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, where it begins in The Shire and ends in The Shire, yet the characters have gone through a harrowing journey and return changed. As for writing, I’ve explored both the journey and fixed settings. REBEL SEOUL is a book that takes place primarily in two halves of one city, an alt-future Seoul, South Korea divided into an upper class sector (Neo Seoul) and a lower class sector (Old Seoul). I would consider these “specific settings” even if my protagonist spends time primarily in different districts (and within those districts, different microsettings: like school or my protagonist’s one-room apartment). It’s also different writing from the perspective of a character who knows their world intimately, like my protagonist does in REBEL, as opposed to a character who is discovering the world, as they often are in journeys. Characters who are discovering worlds notice different things than characters who might take their worlds for granted, having lived in them every day of their lives. Right now I’m working on a journey story, and exploring how to reveal setting through a character who is also discovering the world for the first time has proven both challenging and rewarding.
Akshaya: I’m torn because I do really love both. I love that being able to dive into one setting means a deeper understanding of that place. You truly get to explore the place and dig into those specific details we discussed earlier. But I also love journeys because it provides a bigger cultural and geographical picture of the world. How does this one city do something different from this other city? How do the characters respond to changes in settings that might be outside of their comfort zone?
Melody: This feels like a very “the industry is so subjective” answer but I feel like you can apply that type of answer to this question, so no shame in connecting with one over the other. I prefer delving deeply into a few specific settings because it keeps me on my toes and while it gives me a wider landscape of a world, there’s more time and attention and focus on each part of the puzzle (in my head). I do like journey/quest stories but for me, sometimes it is easy to get bored because it just feels like not much is happening (even if there is).
But I do love when characters leave behind a setting in the beginning and if they return at some point near the end of their journey, their entire perspective has changed so maybe it’s really just that first time we see them in that setting and then the final scene in which we see them in that setting that reinforces the characters’ journey.