February Third Thursday: “Places Unknown: Crafting Fully Realized Settings” Recap

From Hogwarts to Hong Kong and Wonderland to Wichita, the setting of a story is one of its most crucial aspects. To discuss how location and timing can shape your writing, Sarah Renee Beach sat down with Cristina García, Ursula Pike, and John Pipkin in our February Third Thursday panel.

Each author brought a unique perspective to the panel. Pipkin, as a writer of historical fiction, was able to discuss the challenges of setting a story in a specific time as well as a place. His main piece of advice? “Forget what you think you know.” He says that the best way to create a historical setting that feels realistic and vivid is to let go of any sense of “history” and to just create a story where people are living their ordinary lives, and to let your readers fill in the blanks from there.

García’s writing spans multiple countries and locations. She spoke about the process that went into determining and balancing those locations. For her, picking a setting revolved largely around context—that of the Cuban diaspora, of historical factors, and of the social circumstances in her main locations. She finds tumultuous time periods to make especially interesting settings because “Revolution begets dislocation begets interesting stories.”

Memoir author Pike says that one of the questions she gets asked most often in regard to her settings is how and when she decides to change the names of real people or places discussed in her work. She handled this in her novel by altering the name of the town she visits to that of Bolivia’s national flower. For her, setting is not simply the physical space the narrative explores, but a representation of the resilience and character of the people she encounters.

The panel then shifted to the importance of research when crafting a setting. A good rule of thumb whenever you’re writing about something is to read about it first, and a setting is no different. For Pike, reading indigenous authors is paramount to understanding the history and environment of a place. García feels similarly about the poets of a place, saying that they help bring the voice of a location to life. For Pipkin, reading about a setting is crucial to understanding what has already been written and avoiding cliche.

One of the most important tips from the night, in my opinion, was that setting should act as an extension of your narrator. What your characters notice about their surroundings has much more of an impact on your story than every factual detail. It matters more, for example, if your character thinks the smell of a bar is eerily familiar than if they know the exact street address. As Pipkin says, “Setting is something that often gets underutilized in a story. It’s more than just the static backdrop…when writing prose narrative, setting can help us to understand characters better…The more you can integrate the setting into the story itself and the character development, the more the setting starts to come alive.”

Be sure to catch our next Third Thursday at BookPeople on March 21!

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