Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
This free script provided by
Map Your Settings
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
November 6, 2014
Fiction is an opportunity to visit virtually places that you and your readers could never otherwise experience. Dragon lairs, floating cities, Roman gladiator fights, or the construction site of the Taj Mahal -- these are all impossible to get to these days. It is true that you can journey to India, pay an entry fee in Agra and tour the Taj Mahal, but you can't go back to the time when it was being built. Roman gladiator fights have been over for millennia, while dragon lairs and floating cities never even existed, except in people's imaginations.
Great settings can enhance your story. They can give your readers a wondrous experience, make or break a mood, or even increase your plot possibilities, as your characters interact with their surroundings. Especially in adventure stories, settings can play a role in whether your characters live or die.
But in this column, we won't discuss which settings are perfect for your story, in part because that is a very subjective decision that should be left to you, the artist (though it may get covered later). Instead, we'll focus on what you can do to improve your understanding of your story's settings. After all, authors often play "host" to readers, "showing them around," and it helps to be as well-informed about where your story is taking place as you can.
Dream Up Possibilities
The first step is to think of settings in the first place, which depends heavily on your story and your characters. Where do they spend their days? Where is it logical for them to be and to go?
Sometimes a story's environment is defined at the outset. An astronaut may be in the International Space System (ISS) -- not exactly a floating city but perhaps it will evolve into one -- because these days astronauts don't really go anywhere else. On the other hand, you may be writing a story where you have many more options with respect to setting. Perhaps your characters are traveling, and are taking a long journey in wagon trains from east to west, like pioneers of yore, in which case you can choose to focus on your favorites along the route.
Other story settings may be more mundane. Perhaps you are setting your story in a small town, and you have little to do besides invent a few houses and street names. Finally, some settings may be absolutely fantastic: the dragon's lair, the wizard's castle, the vampire's crypt.
Whatever your possible settings, I suggest that you make a list of them, either mentally or in a file. I believe, too, that unless you are writing a very short piece -- or unless your characters really can't go anywhere, which could be true if you are up at the ISS or if your characters are prisoners in some jail cell -- it is good to have several settings in mind. Most readers expect to visit more than one imaginary place in a story, and you should be prepared.
After you have come up your list of possible settings for the scenes of your story, you may need to engage in research to get them right. If you place your story on the ISS, you will need to understand it better than most potential readers.
The best thing you can do is to personally visit your settings or reasonable proxies for them. For example, perhaps your characters work in a restaurant or a museum. Everyone has eaten in a restaurant, but have you spent time in a restaurant's kitchen? Everyone has visited a museum, but have you been to the museum basement or the museum office? By visiting these places -- even if you will not be using the exact places that you visit -- you can learn a lot about details and the atmosphere.
Some places are difficult to visit, but you can still do research to learn more. If you want to set your story on the ISS and you are not in the space program and lack the millions of dollars needed to go up as a tourist, you can still become better acquainted with the place by taking a YouTube tour with Astronaut Suni Williams. You may find similar videos, articles and documentaries about other hard-to-reach places.
Whatever your possible settings, when you do your visits or your research, look around you -- in all six directions. Left, right, front, back, up and down. (Most of us forget "up" and "down.") What do you see; what do you notice? What would your characters notice? Where does the light come from? Is it warm or cold? Dry or moist? How does it smell? Do you hear anything? How does it feel to walk on the floor (or to float around, if that is what you are doing)?
Also, check your emotional reaction to these places, and take especial note of items that can impress you or make you uncomfortable. How does it make you feel to be in a room with all sorts of knives? Do all the crates in the museum basement make you uncomfortable as you wonder what -- or who -- is in them? Is it so luxurious that your protagonist feels out of place, or so disgusting that your hero is nauseated?
You do not need to replicate the details you see exactly, but these details can provide inspiration for your story. You may be surprised by what bits and pieces will prove useful as you start to invent.
Of course, not all places can be visited, either in person or by watching a video. Some places, such as dragon lairs, exist only in imaginations. That does not mean you should not do research. You should ask yourself relevant questions, such as the ones above, and then make up the answers. Look with your mind's-eye in all the directions, and ask what your characters would see and what else they would notice.
Make a Map
Whether your world is based on reality or is entirely imaginary, you may find it useful to make rough sketches or even detailed maps. Sketches and maps can help orient you as you write your story and plan the action. It can also help you keep from contradicting yourself.
If you're creating a world with a lot of details and information, maps and sketches can save you a lot of grief. My co-author does all our Tapestry of Bronze maps, which are so nice that we include them in our books and at our website. However, we created them as research tools for us as writers, not as illustrations for our readers. We needed to remember the names of the gates of Thebes and how long it took to travel to Delphi. We needed to know where the rivers were around Olympia. When we work on a new project, instead of having to re-research these details, we can just glance at one of our maps. We had to invent some of these things, but at least we're consistent within our series. The maps save a lot of time and tedium.
You may not be mapping a city or the route of a journey. Perhaps you are sketching the floor plan of a house so that you remember where the front door is, whose bedroom is on which floor, and how many bathrooms the house has. Perhaps you are just drawing the furniture in a room so that you know how a murder takes place. Perhaps it is a dragon's lair, and a plan will give you an idea of the relative sizes of the dragon, the cave, and the people who have come to steal (or steal back) the treasure.
If the sketch is just for you (and not going on your website) you don't have to fill in all the details. You may not know what lies to the east (yet). You may not know what is in the attic or the basement of your characters' house, and perhaps it does not even matter. In fact, if you are planning to write a series, you want to keep some areas undeveloped for rooms and places you may need in the future. For example, I recently started a mystery series set in the fictional town of Maryannsville, Indiana. As I wrote Academic Assassination, I needed to know many things: the address and the floor plan of the Martins' house, the Irvin Lecture and Music Hall at Cogito University (the Cog), and a few of the shops in Maryannsville. As I work on the second book in the same town, I am inventing other places, such as where the bookstore is, and the mansion of the president of Cogito University.
Maps and sketches can help you keep your stories straight. You won't need them for all your locations, but in some instances they can be invaluable. Once you know your way around your story's settings, you can move your characters through them with confidence -- and guide your readers through your fictional world as well.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.