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How to write successful setting

Posted by inkpop on February 6, 2010

inktips #15: Wondrous Strange author Lesley Livingston says ‘get crazy creative’ in developing your story’s setting

“Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is its own character.”

That’s how writer Lesley Livingston describes her favorite fictional setting. “You relate to it the same way you relate to the Scooby Gang,” says the HarperTeen author of the Wondrous Strange trilogy. “You feel for it every time Buffy’s house gets wrecked or the Magic Shop gets trashed. You know you’re supposed to feel a certain way in Spike’s crypt or the High School or the cemetery.”

The key to writing a good setting (whether for a book, short story, TV show, or movie) is making it the home base of the story—just as Sunnydale is to the overall plot development of the Buffy series.

Settings are most interesting when they are an integral part of the story,” Livingston says. “If the story can happen just anywhere, then why are you putting it there?”

Afterall, what would Twilight be without Forks, or Gossip Girl be without Manhattan?  

Here, Livingston shares her seven inktips for creating a compelling setting. Got more questions? Chat with Lesley Livingston on inkpop Forums Events on February 6 at 5 p.m. EST.


Whether your story is set in high school, Paris, or a roller derby, an interesting setting is critical to good storytelling—and what better way to make it compelling than to get to know it inside and out.

New York’s Central Park plays a big part of the back story and plot of the second book of Livingston’s series, Darklight, a romantic story that follows aspiring teen actress Kelley Winslow.

In order to bring the park to life, Livingston spent many hours getting to know the nooks and crannies of its 843 acres, and she also researched the park’s century-plus history. To get intimate with your story’s setting, why not play a game of Q&A—the same sort of interview process that’s recommended for character development. Ask your setting questions like “How old are you?” “What kind of people come here?” “What are your biggest secrets?”


If you’re worried that your characters will get bored of hanging out in just one primary setting, give them space to breathe in a secondary location. Think about your characters’ most likely stomping grounds and decide which ones deserve the most attention.

If you’re unable to physically visit a secondary setting, research the locations online. And, of course, if the setting is fictional, dream up the look and feel of it in your mind—bring it to life just as you do with your characters.

Such is the case for the Wondrous Strange trilogy. When not in Central Park, Livingston takes her readers into the Otherworld—the Faerie realm. “I drew somewhat on my own experiences of a place that I thought was magical, which is the wilderness landscapes of Wales—a place I visited on a trip some years ago,” Livingston says. “The Otherworld is full of staggering natural beauty, both pastoral and rugged. I painted a sheen of faerie glamour.”


There are more ways to convey setting than simply telling the reader what everything looks like. “Your reader has five senses. Engage them all,” Livingston says.


Does your setting make sense? “I’m not instantly buying it if your characters are on a world that is alien and dangerous to humans, but they can move around freely without environmental suits,” Livingston says.


Let your imagination run free and explore the surroundings in your story as you write. “Discover them along with your characters, and don’t be afraid to make them as vivid and real as you can,” Livingston says.


Be observant and analytical of life and the world around you. Livingston says that some of the best ideas you’ll get for setting could be right across the street or just downstairs, or something that you discover on your way to school. “Use your powers of observation wisely and well,” she says. 


The writer’s job is to flesh out details, but to a point. Livingston recommends giving readers just enough information so that they’re able to fill in details on their own.

“I’m not interested in generic, faceless towns or cookie-cutter castles,” she says. “But I also don’t need the author to spend three pages describing every tree and blade of grass in the sun-drenched glade, or devoting a whole chapter to the history of the moon-base mining colony if it has nothing to do with the story.”

Use your self-editing skills to pull off the Details Balancing Act. “If I know that there is a grandfather clock in the oak-panelled hallway, I don’t necessarily need to know that there is also paisley wallpaper and rose-patterned carpeting on the stairs,” Livingston says. “But I might need to know if the air smells faintly musty, as if no one has been there in a long time.” 

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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One Response to “How to write successful setting”

  1. akumaxkami said

    Great tips!

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