Creating a Setting

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Last week, Evelyn commented on “Do I Need to Do Research?” In part, she said “…If you set your story in a real place, you may need to look at a street map. The MG novel I’m writing is set in summer of 1968, so that required a lot of background research.”

Creating a setting can be tough. Where do you start? What do you have to figure out before you start writing? Here are a few tips including one that came to me when I read Evelyn’s comment.

Start with Someplace You Know

One of the best ways to create a setting is to start with someplace real that you know. In part, this helps because you aren’t having to start from scratch and some decisions will be made for you. How are the streets laid out? Is it a grid or a sprawl? Are schools located back in neighborhoods or on major streets? What themes can be found in the street names?

In the city where I live, schools are generally on major streets. There are only a few exceptions and people have a hard time finding these particular schools. That’s a fact that I could use in a story. Hmm.

Decide How Your Setting Will Differ

Although you are starting with someplace real that you know well, you don’t have to stick to reality. Feel free to change things up. In my town, street names follow several themes. There are the saint names (both real and imagined), horse streets with names like Thoroughbred and Paddock, and a small grouping of Mark Twain related names as in Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer.

I could get one of these themes entirely and add something new. Instead of the horse streets, I could have flower streets. That would work especially well if I named the town something like Flower Valley or Flowerdale.

Don’t Forget Maps

Up in her comment (see, I didn’t forget!), Evelyn mentioned doing map research. This can be especially important if you are setting your story in the past. What might the town have looked like in 1930 vs 1960? That’s when a lot of the suburban communities really developed. Looking at historic maps could also help you spot things like orchards and farms that are now subdivisions. As you change things up, it will probably help to sketch out some maps so that you remember how many blocks it is from point a to point b.

Creating a setting can be really stressful because you have so many decisions to make. Pick a setting to use as a mentor and then play with creating a new reality for your story. This is your chance to play urban planner!