Key Ways to Adding Depth to Any Setting: Resources & Tips

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wizarding World of Harry Potter : Hogwarts

 

What makes a book setting memorable? We have all read books where the setting gripped us and drew us in as readers, but any setting takes research to develop the world we will portray in our books. Even settings we are familiar with, like a hometown, take vision to add to the plot we will develop. It takes even more to create a fictional world no one has ever known or a futuristic setting we want to make vivid in the reader’s mind. Some vivid setting books that come to mind for me are: the Hunger Games series, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones. If you have a series in mind, your canvas for storytelling must be large and hold its mysteries for future plot lines. A good setting can become a character in your books.

Many new or aspiring authors don’t include much of a setting. They tend to focus on their plot, the actions of the characters and the dialogue, but any setting can enhance a scene or a book.

Here is an excerpt from THE CURSE SHE WORE with a sprinkle of setting to enhance the mood of the scene – in the voice of Trinity LeDoux.

French Quarter

Rain sluiced from rooftops and pinged through metal rain gutters as if God had given up and flushed the world. I knew the feeling, the ache and emptiness of loss, especially tonight.

Mixed with the din of the rain, Dixieland jazz and Zydeco grated on my nerves. I had no tolerance for good cheer. Not tonight. I only had a taste for straight up bourbon and the severed artery of soul sucking blues, but where I headed I’d get neither.

I clutched the vintage necklace I’d worn to remind me why I had to come.

When I look back at the stories I have written, especially after I wrote my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM in my old hometown of San Antonio, I did NOT pick safe bets. I often wrote in the best setting for the plot I had in mind, even if that meant writing about locations I had never been. Since I had traveled, I knew what it felt like to navigate in a world where I didn’t know the language or where to go. I could use any of my experiences to color the world of my characters or I could invent things to throw in their paths to make challenges. My empathy and imagination would help make the plight of my characters “relatable.”

When I wrote my latest novel – THE CURSE SHE WORE – I picked New Orleans as the setting. I had been to NOLA a few times, but that didn’t make me an expert. I used advisers that knew New Orleans well. I picked their brains & listened for the subtle nuances of local lingo & iconic venues. These experts helped provide me with the color & the history that I would want added to my series. It can be a rabbit hole to chase down the things that interest you about a location, but if you don’t use the material in your current project, you may save the notes for future plots. A writer’s brain is like a sponge, thirsty for knowledge.

Here are key examples of things you should know about your setting to add depth:

1.) What is the culture and ethnicity of your setting? Are their inherent conflicts with differences?

2.) What key events in history helped shape & influence your setting? History can define people and social morays. It pays to know the history of the world you are either creating from scratch or researching for accuracy.

3.) Add subtext for your setting that is reflected in your character’s attitude or mood. Try having your setting mirror the mood or attitude of your character to add context. You do this by making deliberate choices on what your character notices about the setting that reflects or mirrors their mood. For example, if a young woman walks into a bar filled with men who stare at her as if she were a porterhouse steak, what would she notice? What would crawl under her skin about the setting? The dirt, the smells, the sounds that grate on her nerves.

I love playing off the setting to enhance a scene. For example, here is my character Trinity LeDoux as she is introduced to the opulent plantation estate of Hayden Quinn, the psychic she must convince to join her on a perilous mission. She has never known wealth or power but she sees it everywhere in Quinn’s world.

Excerpt: The Curse She Wore

Ivory Magnolia Plantation

I’d never sat under a thousand sparkling rainbows before.

The crystal chandelier in Hayden’s dining room cast pastels onto the lace tablecloth. Expensive wood-carved furniture surrounded me and made me feel small. In Quinn’s world, normal meant something else entirely, something I’m not sure I would ever figure out.

I had a grasp that my life wasn’t normal, but I couldn’t say whether Hayden Quinn’s world was any closer to that mark. The man was cocooned as much in history as in his comfortable wealth—but with a gift that stamped him as an abiding freak by most people.

Normal? Not even close.

Paintings on the wall turned the room into a museum—as close as I’d ever get to such comely abundance—but when Quinn lit candles for the occasion, the soft glow from the majestic candelabras made me drowsy with contentment. He could’ve confused me with fancy utensils and proper china plates, but he’d kept things simple.

I had no doubt he’d done that for me. He’d welcomed me into his world with more grace than I had a right.

4.) Use your fives senses to place the reader there, but don’t go overboard. Don’t pull the reader from your writing by deliberately citing each sense as if you are doing an inventory. Pick the most critical and visual and go for it.

5.) Use visual aids to tease into your settings. If you have an iconic location, pick one or two images that readers may know and insert them into your story. Integrate them naturally. When I researched the streets of White Chapel in THE CURSE SHE WORE, I loved finding old maps to help me visualize where my character would’ve walked and what she might’ve seen as she went. History books are great for this and there are online resources that can help.

6.) Use action to incorporate setting details into your scenes to be more subtle about the use of your research. Action can be a great way of merging plot with research in a natural way.

Excerpt from THE CURSE SHE WORE (in Victorian London, late 1800s):

“This is where you live?”

I feared for the girl and her Alfred. No wonder she’d brought the dog with her.

Dorset Street was still a hive of activity, even at this hour. Disheveled beggars hustled for any handout and street merchants hawked their wares and services. Their voices reverberated off brick to magnify the sound. I would’ve paid for silence.

Women huddled on corners, eyeing every man who walked by and making offers. Some were mothers in stained frocks who clutched at their crying babies. A mother’s duty to provide knew no limits.

I had a bad feeling on where the girl would head next as she ducked down a flagged passageway, next to McCarthy’s store. A lone gas lamp cast shadows into a narrow and dismal courtyard that would never see sunlight even at noon.

It had a public water spigot dripping rust onto cobblestone and a common toilet that smelled as if it had backed up. As I peered into the court, I took in the steady noise and imagined the life of a girl in this forsaken corner of hell. The brick walls didn’t cover up the sounds of squeaking beds and fake orgasms, or the constant noise from a small pub on her doorstep.

7.) What food best portrays your location? Many times you have only a few spots where you can showcase food to color your world. What would you pick as quintessential? I often use a real restaurant and research their menu to include in my book. Can my character afford the prices? Make it real. That way, if a reader knows the location or looks into the details, they can find the real venues and connect deeper to my books.

Word of caution – I like to use real restaurants when I can, but if I write something bad in my plot that happens in that establishment, I will only go with a fictional name for the location. I may tease the reader with a setting that’s similar to a local restaurant, but I would call it something different. For example, in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM, I burned down a historic theatre. I pictured the Majestic Theatre, but I called it by another fictional name. I would be drawn and quartered if I had burned down a real theatre as popular as the Majestic. I also described the iconic Fig Tree Restaurant on the Riverwalk, but called it another name because my crime boss had dinner there. I didn’t want to give the restaurant a bad name.

8.) What are the street sights and sounds as your character walks through your setting? You can imagine a typical street but when you go the extra mile to describe certain characteristics, the reader may know your setting well enough to appreciate it.

9.) What is the geography/terrain or weather in the region? How does it affect your story? Look for seasonal weather forecast averages for the time of year you are choosing for your story. Google Maps can help define the regional geography. Even if you don’t use much of this kind of information, it can help to add layers to your story if you give the reader glimpses, as if you have been there. (I have never been to South America, but when I had Brazilian advisers who read through some of my books for authenticity, they came back with great feedback – that they were homesick for their country. That really made my day.)

10.) What is the local language or slang for places, events and common sights? This can be a tough challenge. Local slang is hard to pin down, but look on social media pages/sites to get a start & read the comments to blog posts to find the local lingo. (For example, in Dallas Hwy 75 is called Central Expressway. Despite politicians renaming a northern section of it, most locals will always call it “Central.” Or the locals in New Orleans don’t use the full name for the French Quarter. They may simply call it “the Quarter.”)

11.) What is the flora and fauna of the region? When I wrote about a remote area in Alaska for THE LAST VICTIM, I contacted the Chamber of Commerce on the island and talked at length with Grace, a newfound friend. She not only sent me many brochures on the island, she also sent me personal photos of the exact areas I needed. She had hiked there many times. She was a wealth of knowledge for how the natives lived on the island and even how they brewed an herbal tea they called Swamp Tea, common to many households. This type of information is pure gold when you’re a writer.

12.) What do the locals do for entertainment? These activities can vary by how much it costs to do these things. Not everyone can afford the same entertainment.

13.) Imagine where your character may go in your setting location and research those places. Bistros, libraries, entertainment, homes in the area, & public buildings they might frequent.

14.) What are the local newspapers? I used this in several of my books, but it’s always fun to imagine what my characters would do to get information and make it feel real to readers.

RESOURCES:

Contact Visitors Bureaus and Chambers of Commerce – These organizations can be invaluable to get you started. Don’t be shy about speaking to someone. You never know who you will meet over the phone.

Research Locations on Social Media – Many places, like New Orleans, have Facebook pages and other social media. Don’t stop at the official sites. Look for realtors selling properties in the area or food/entertainment resources and other key sites to get your juices flowing over your plot.

Youtube/Vimeo – I did a huge amount of research on mountain climbing (something I would never have experience for) in my YA book – ON A DARK WING. I had friends who had made the climb up Denali, the challenge one of my characters faced, but there was also many videos of climbers who had traversed Everest. Videos from inside their freezing tents with winds howling. These are things an expert might not share with you.

Internet Image Searches – Look for images for the setting you are researching. Many times, a picture can jump start ideas on characters, plot or events. Create a vision board for ideas that give you the flavor you are searching for and immerse yourself in that world as you write.

Music – What sounds do you hear when you think of the location? Do you ever listen to certain music before you write or AS you write, to get in the mood? Take the time to get to know your locale or invent a new one.

Libraries – Libraries are a great way to research ANYTHING. They often carry newspapers and periodicals from your locale or they can be a resource for non-fiction books on the subject. When I wrote THE CURSE SHE WORE, I used Liza Picard books to color my Victorian London historical world.

Google Street View Maps – I call this “walking with yellow man” – the little yellow icon you can click and drag to what street view you want to see. I have picked scary/crime ridden areas of my setting to find specific locations for creepy stuff to happen and I describe it. Whether a reader knows I have done this, it doesn’t matter. The visual preparation stimulates my writing and I love going the extra mile to make things real FOR ME. Here is the app for Google Streetview from Google Store. I have this on my phone. I can search a street view to see it like my character would. Very cool.

In summary, I have always loved having a layer of setting in each scene and it’s especially gratifying for me to select the right location for my book’s setting where I can reflect my character’s emotional journey. Over the years, I have found different resources to build on my process.  I hope this post will get you to think about and appreciate your own process. Please share your tips.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Have I missed anything? Please share what you do to research setting for your books. Bonus points if you provide resource links.

2.) Are there tried and true methods you implement to research your settings? Describe your process.

2.) What are settings you have written (or read about) that you are most proud of as a writer or have stuck in your mind as a reader? What made it so authentic?

 

The Curse She Wore

They had Death in common…

Homeless on the streets of New Orleans, Trinity LeDoux has nothing to lose when she hands a cursed vintage necklace to a wealthy, yet reclusive clairvoyant.

During a rare public appearance, Hayden Quinn is unexpectedly recruited into Trinity’s perilous mission–a journey back through time to the exact moment of death for two very different victims.

Hayden and Trinity, two broken people with nothing but death in common, pursue the dangerous quest to stop a murderer from emulating the grisly works of a notorious serial killer. But trespassing on Fate’s turf comes with a price–one they never see coming.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

16 thoughts on “Key Ways to Adding Depth to Any Setting: Resources & Tips

  1. ARGH! I’m late for work so could only skim this post. Will have to read in detail when I get home tonight. But “setting as character” is one of the most important things to me as a reader. Perhaps that comes from growing up reading westerns/historicals. But for me, a novel that doesn’t make excellent use of setting usually gets the ‘meh’ rating.

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  2. Excellent list, Jordan. I’m working on a novel set in the British Isles where we vacationed for our anniversary. My biggest challenge (so far) has been to avoid it coming across as a travelogue. Have to keep reminding myself there has to be a story in there, too. I’m fortunate that one of my critique partners lives in London, so he’s on top of my language (mis)usage. And my daughter lives in Northern Ireland, so she’s a good “accuracy” resource as well.

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  3. This is a great post, Jordan. I’m still learning how to research, so I don’t have much to add. My two current WIPs are set in Eastern Washington, the area I grew up in and still live. But it’s amazing how much I still need to investigate, because although I know the areas, I grew up in a different town than Ellensburg and Newport. I’ve studied maps and looked at their websites, and am thinking of taking some day trips.

    Speaking of food…in one scene, I describe what my MC’s family is eating for dinner. Because my MC, Annie, “thrives on as usual”, and the plot will carry her to “not usual”, I chose a standard, routine meat and potatoes dinner. I deliberately chose that over fancy-schmancy “food nouveau” to add punch to the mounting fear in her mind.

    Thank you for this. It’s chock-full of valuable tips, as usual…:)

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    • I can see her eating fancy but only tasting protein & sustenance. Mindless eating. I like how you’re describing your scene. The fact that you’re putting much thought into your craft is wonderful.

      Day trips for research can be fun. You never know what will trigger your imagination, even in a familiar setting. Thanks, Deb.

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    • Fictional towns don’t mean stereotypical or generic. There’s comfort in the familiar but if you want your setting to resonate & be memorable, you might consider adding a unique facet, like the wooden bridges in Madison County. A deft touch can transform. Thanks, Eric.

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  4. Gotta brag on Jordan. I just finished The Curse She Wore. Although I’ve never been to NOLA or 19th century London, I smelled every smell (fragrant and foul), tasted every bite, heard every haunting melody, felt every trickle of sweat. This post tells how she pulled it off so successfully.

    Brava, my friend!

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  5. This is a bit of what I have constructed so far:

    Jin sighed as he put on the filthy work clothes he had worn for a week now, without washing them. Filthiness was a disgrace for a man of Nippon.
    Perhaps the children were right. They had stopped calling him by his name. He had been Jin to his family and friends all his life. It was a simple name, one that he had been given by an uncle, a respectful nickname. That was before he lost his position as a teacher at the school. Now, he was a digger—and that’s what the children and anyone else who would talk to him called him: Horidashimono. He recognized the name was a taunt. His own real name, a short and simple name, one that had once been spoken with respect by school children, parents, and even elders of Nagasaki was no more, to the people of Nagasaki. What they call him now, Horidashimono, had become a pun, a way to tease a disgraced old man, a man of filth.
    To himself, he was still Jin.

    But today, he would be Horidashimono again. Today, he would simply dig again.

    FADE OUT. (That means the story has stopped.)

    Four hundred years before the American Air Force dropped the plutonium-laced bomb nicknamed Fat Man on Nagasaki, the Toyotomi government, which had direct control over Nagasaki, authorized the trading of silver between China and Japanese interests.

    Now, I must reconstruct and describe what Nagasaki looked like in the 16th Century. The streets. The house and buildings. The water and sewage systems. The places and presence of the Chinese traders. The children playing in the street. That all is going to be difficult because I’ve never been to Japan. And with the condition of my legs, I’ll never get to go there.

    But here is why 16th Century Nagasaki is important to my story.

    Jin, a former, disgraced teacher who had once taught school in Nagasaki, would wend his way each morning, seven days a week, to a hillside west of the little village of Nagasaki. To dig for a little silver that he could trade for food, a little medicine, perhaps. He would set aside a small bit of his small bit of silver to take to his daughter, Mamiko once, but now nameless. She lived under the harshness and hardness of the owner of the house in Nagasaki’s poor imitation of Edo’s Yoshiwara, where Nagasaki’s prostitutes were licensed as yūjo (遊女), women of pleasure. Many were beautiful and held attention with head held high and red-painted lips. Mamkio was not and did not. She was given a place to sleep and rice twice daily for her labor of washing the filth-strewn bedding of the house’s yūjo. And, she attended to their kimono. Should she make a mistake with the kimono, she could be beaten, even killed with impunity. No one would miss a poor attendant.

    So Jin must dig.

    How else would we get a hole in the hillside for Carol Nagata, an American girl, to fall into, only moments before Fat Man brought American hell to Nagasaki the morning of August 9, 1945, killing 80,000 people, but not Carol?

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    • I love how you tie a vivid setting & sense of history to the emotional journey of your character. It makes your writing & your story multi-faceted & nuanced. Thanks for sharing, Jim.

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  6. I grew up in New Orleans (well, specifically, the North Shore of New Orleans) so get really irked when a movie or book depicts a random Mardi Gras parade in the middle of summer, or when everyone either speaks with a Southern accent or Cajun accent. I tend to put the book down or turn off the movie.

    The novel I’m working on is set off-world (a prison planet), which makes it a load of fun. It rains constantly: heavy, light, downpours, drizzle, mist, steady, but every so often, the sun comes out for a wee while. It’s interesting how the characters have to adapt to everything being wet and cold all the time. Electronics don’t work very long. Not much grows. You lose sense of time. It’s depressing (and, it’s meant to be). Not only that, but as a remote planet, the lead-times for everything from food to clothing to engineering supplies is stupidly long, even with light-speed/faster-than-light-speed accounted for.

    I’m finding that I base fictional cities on real ones more often than not. One series I’m outlining is set in a Silicon Valley/San Francisco city called West Austen in the not-toot-distant future. A trilogy I’m also outlining is in a city called Corwick, Alabama, an amalgamation of Birmingham and Montgomery, set in the distant future. While challenging to create a city from scratch, it also solves the problem of what happens when you get it wrong. 🙂

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    • Like popular locations where many people are drawn, a venue has many influences that shape what it offers. It’s important to steer clear of stereotypes while still capturing the foundation of what makes a place unique at its core.

      Your fictional location reminds me of the years I lived in Alaska. There’s an effect on the mind when you live in constant cloudy, gloomy days. Any brief glimpse of the sun makes you turn crazy but you have to keep busy as a distraction from “cabin fever” & depression. Darkness carries a weight as you endure it. Rain or steady drizzle would be similar. Good luck with your book, Mollie.

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  7. Funny you should mention Google Earth. Periodically over the last couple of days I’ve been at a marsh and a sea basin with “yellow man,” trying to find different ways in and out. 😉

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