How to conjure up the perfect setting for your story

The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand – Robert Louis Stevenson

Imagine you’ve created the most heroic, heart melting, courage-perspiring hero plus a snarling, devious, and downright dirty nemesis for said hero to battle (or similar, depending on what your story is all about). Now imagine the setting your story is as dull as a dry cracker or simply doesn’t fit around your characters and their various plights.

Your story will fall flat – flat as the proverbial pancake.

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The home of Tolkien’s Hobbit are the rolling Shires of Middle Earth (it would be a little weird if Bilbo lived in the dystopian 2019 Los Angeles from Blade Runner, wouldn’t it?) and Harry Potter lodged in a cupboard under the stairs until he was whisked away to Hogwarts to tussle with Voldemort.

The point is: these settings serve to enhance the stories mentioned above and in turn, immortalise the characters that exist within them.

If you have incredible characters for your book or story, but you’re lacking a world to put them in, or you have a legendary tale but don’t know where to place it, these creative tips will lend a helping hand…

Start broad and get more specific

Whether you’re creating your setting from scratch or you’re trying to refine one that isn’t quite working, one way of visualising the world where your story will unfold is to start broad and work your way inwards.

Now, this should go without saying: your general setting should reflect your story’s theme. You’ll have a good idea of what realm to place your story in so you can use that as a very tenuous template.

Once you have a very general idea of your setting, work through these ideas to create the perfect world for your tale…

  • Time frame: do you want your story to be set in the past, present, or future?
  • Wider world: will your tale take place on Earth, another planet, or a fictional parallel universe where penguins wear plimsolls?
  • Real or fictional places: does your story lend itself to real-life towns, villages or cities; towns, villages or cities that have fictional names but are based on real-life places, or entirely fictional spots?
  • Country: depending on what the above answer is, which country is the story going to be set and which culture will surround your characters as the story develops?
  • Town, city or village?: this doesn’t have to be too rigid, but by deciding where the HQ for your story lies, you’ll have a solid foundation from which to build everything.

Answer one or two of the above and before you know it, you’ll see your setting will unfold right before your eyes – this will call for a celebratory beer, wine, or chocolate bar.

The finer details

Now your rooting tooting story setting has come to life, you’ll want to shade it in with the finer details and give it a real identity.

First of all, if your world is entirely fictional, you’ll want to name it – and all of the places that exist within it – this is fun.

If you’re stuck for ideas, think of names for old pets, old pet names, or simply pull random words from the dictionary. Play with different combinations and once you have the overall name for your setting it will cause a domino effect. Within minutes, you’ll have a name for everything – even the local deli shop where evil antagonist gets his pastrami from.

Next, much like you did when constructing the backdrop of your story, you should take these actions to give your setting more shape…

  • Write down and name major landmarks that will feature in your story.
  • Create and name homes and local haunts for your main characters based on the general setting and their personalities.
  • Conjure up a place for the big climax of your story – this is critical.
  • Think of a few places that your characters may never visit but will reference to add authenticity.
  • Take a break and then scribe down anything else that will add extra dimensions to your story; things like the weather, what the lampposts look like, the transportation situation, the colour of the natural ground, what the flora and fauna looks like. Go wild – the sky’s the limit.

At this point, you’ll want to live in your world – you’ll be able to smell and taste it and your desire to write will be stronger than ever.

Leave room for spontaneity

I know you probably want to get back to your story so I’ll make this one quick.

Not many people will tell you this but as you begin to write and dig deep into the realms of your story you should always be prepared to make spare of the moment edits, changes, and additions to its setting.

Some of the greatest moments of any fictional masterpiece come from spurts of spontaneity – unexplainable bursts of passion. Not only does this add flair but it will also keep your mind agile and excited during the process, resulting in more authentic, more inspiring prose.

Whatever crazy setting you conjure up, we hope you have fun during the process. And if you end up writing a short story and you’re looking for a place to get it published, perhaps this will help.


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