Make Your Setting Realistic

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. Let’s talk about settings.

We’ve all heard the adage, “Write what you know.” Most of us assume our book should be something we’re familiar with. If you have a medical background, you might write medical thrillers. Former military or a military spouse? Maybe you want to write military fiction.

A rural East Texas road in winter

Writing what we know can also apply to settings. I grew up in Texas, so it was only natural to set my first novel in a fictitious Texas town. I know which plants are native to this area and what birds and animals live here. I’m familiar with the landscape and geographical features. I know area customs.

Somewhere in the southwestern United States

It’s easy to choose a place we’re familiar with. But if you’re like me, you don’t want all your books set in the same location. You may choose another state or even a different country. Even if you create a fictitious town, you still want the setting to be realistic. Here are a few tips on how you can do that.

Familiarize yourself with the area. The best way is to visit. Look around. Observe. Take photos and make notes. Talk with the people who live there. Learn their customs. Good excuse for a vacation, right? If a trip is out of the question, find someone who lives or has lived in the area, and ask questions.

Do your research. These days, we no longer have to go to a library or refer to encyclopedias. Use the internet. Look for articles and websites on such things as climate, popular foods, native plants, and area customs. Start a folder on your browser to bookmark web pages, then refer to them as you’re writing.

Draw from your memories. A few years ago, I wrote a short story to include in an anthology. I created a  fictitious town and gave it a name, but never mentioned the state. It was a place where my husband and I vacationed several times, although years had passed since our last visit. When I took the draft to my writer’s group, one member commented that she pictured the area around Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is exactly what I had in mind.

Start a Pinterest board. This social media platform is an excellent place to save photos and things related to your WIP. I spent a couple of hours one evening looking at and saving photos of a small New Mexico town. If I get stuck describing a scene, I can refer to them. You also have the choice of making the board private if you don’t want to share it with your followers. (You may have guessed I love New Mexico since my upcoming series is set there.)

Some settings are generic. Coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses all have similar features. A quiet neighborhood will have many of the same characteristics. Sit outside and observe your surroundings. Dictate or write notes of what you hear and see. Things such as a passing automobile, birds chirping, barking dogs, the smell of freshly cut grass are commonplace.

But be careful when you write. If you have magnolia trees in southern Arizona or Saguaro cactus in South Carolina, you’ve lost your audience and risk ruining your credibility as an author.

What other advice would you offer to make a setting realistic? Please share in the comments.

59 thoughts on “Make Your Setting Realistic

  1. Pingback: The Sisters of Straygarden Place — Review & Giveaway – Rosi Hollinbeck

  2. Great post and useful information, Joan. I met an author who wrote ten or more of her books using a small town in Montana as the setting. She claimed to be making a lot of money and she has an agent.
    Having a Pinterest board is an excellent idea. I don’t use Pinterest too often but it showed up today when I was working on something. I didn’t realize I saved many photos on Pinterest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    A bit late sharing this with you folks, but I hope you’ll still head over to Story Empire today to read Joan Hall’s post, “Make Your Settings Realistic.” Joan has shared a lot of good tips for researching your book’s settings and/or habitats so you can avoid saying something so egregiously wrong it will pull readers right out of the story. I know you’ll enjoy this one and will want to share it with the immediate world! Thanks, and thanks to Joan for such an excellent post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Joan. In fact, I was thinking to write a very similar post, myself, at some point. Honestly, there’s not much that pulls me out of a story faster than something I know for a fact isn’t true. And while many authors research their main subject matter, there are quite a few who don’t give much thought to their setting or habitat at all. And especially as concerns wildlife, which they sometimes throw in willy-nilly, not realizing that the animals or plants they are describing either don’t belong in the area, or wouldn’t behave in the way they portray them.

    I always use fictional towns when I write, too, so that I can keep my descriptions fitting to the overall area, but don’t have to know that such and such a corner does NOT have a drugstore on it, but rather, a fast food restaurant. If you use a real town, people who live there will know that at once. If nothing else, as you say, it pulls them right out of the story. Or in my case, a book describing “thick, green snakes hanging down from every other tree along the (Florida) river,” made me laugh so hard, I couldn’t take the rest of the book seriously. (We don’t have any of those. Our largest green snake is less than 2′ long and only 1/2″ thick, and totally non-menacing to anything larger than a grasshopper.)

    Great post today! And wonderful tips on how to avoid such errors. Thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve referenced some larger Texas cities in my books, but like to stick with fictional places (especially since my books are set in small towns). In one of my books, I was nervous about mentioning a couple of places in Austin. I’ve been there several times (my brother once lived in Austin) but like most places in Texas, it’s grown tremendously over the past few years. But I couldn’t resist mentioning my fav college team (at least I referenced the stadium where they play).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s exactly the right approach, Joan. There are usually things you can mention safely, especially in nearby towns, etc. I even mentioned a large local mall in a real town not too far from my fictional Riverbend. It’s easy to verify things of that nature are still there. But unless you are writing about a town you actually live in yourself, fictional towns are just easier. You can populate them however you like, and name streets, describe neighborhoods, and locate lakes or other landmarks wherever you want, with no fear of getting it wrong. And truly, getting the plants and wildlife wrong just messes up an author’s entire setting, and readers are smart. They notice notice these things. As they say, “the devil is in the details.”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent advice, Joan. When I’m not familiar with the area I walk the streets with Google Earth. It’s a handy tool if you need to view a particular neighborhood. Just remember, Google Earth runs about three years older than present-day.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally agree, Joan, that the best way to research a place you’ve never been is to physically visit. That isn’t always possible, so Google becomes our next best friend. 🙂 I read somewhere that Diana Gabaldon wrote the entire series of “Outlander” books through research in the Phoenix library. She had never been to Scotland. It worked out well for her. I pay attention to setting in movies I watch and have learned some great things about places I’ve never been by doing that. Great subject today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of these days I may get brave enough to write about an area I haven’t visited. New England is one place that comes to mind. Movie settings are another good resource – one that I hadn’t considered. Thanks, Jan.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Most of what I write is centered around my home town and the neighboring area. I do branch out at times, but that does require research. When doing something out of my local area, I scan the local radio stations and watch the local news. These give me ideas of what is happening, some description of the area, and the radio list lets me know what the people prefer to listen to so that I can work around that.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. When I wrote about North Dakota it took some research, since I’ve never been there. I usually stick to areas I’m familiar with though, in California ot Hawaii. It does encourage some traveling though for reasearch 🙂 Good post Joan.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A good post. Setting grounds a story for me. Makes it feel real, even if real things aren’t happening:) I’ve lived in Indiana my entire life, and I still have to look up what blooms when. I love it when the crabapple trees blossom, but can never remember when that actually happens besides saying spring. Which month? I always have to look it up, so I’ve started keeping a journal of things that happen in each month here.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I often set my work in real or fictional towns in Southwestern Pennsylvania because I grew up there (and recently moved back), so I know the area. But I’ve also researched foreign locales for work. The two things that (I think) helped lend authenticity to those settings was (1) talking to people who lived in or visited those places, as first-hand accounts always trump written research and (2) adding in other senses, particularly smell. Nothing grounds a person faster than scents. (But then, I like to try to include all five senses in my writing all the time.)

    Great post, Joan.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I tend to set most of my books in fictional Pennsylvania towns or east coast towns, because I’m most familiar with them. I love crafting setting in a story, and enjoy losing myself in one as a reader. Often, setting is the thing I remember most about a book years after I’ve read it.

    I did on-location research for my Point Pleasant series, and was honored to have many people who read the books and lived there comment that I had captured the essence of their town and its history. I was so worried writing about an actual town, fearful I might offend someone or screw it up. In the end, I couldn’t have been happier with those comments and reviews.

    Great post today, Joan!

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  12. Great post today. I use Google Earth quite a bit, and am a big Pinterest user. At one time, I was fairly well travelled and that helps, too. If I have a tip, it’s not to forget the senses beyond sight and hearing. It cleared up briefly out here, but last week we could taste the smoke in the air. It was a step beyond smell. Things like the feeling of snow crunching underfoot can really help.

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  13. I agree, Joan. The setting should be realistic or somewhat expected. I write paranormal stories, but even with my other world, I kept some places somewhat familiar. I gave them extra flare, but I wanted the readers to feel as if they could relate to the places. I’ve read plenty of fantasy books where nothing feels familiar, but the author does a good enough job that it slowly feels as if I’ve been there. If it’s realistic fiction, then setting plays a huge role. It has to be believable or the reader stops trusting the author. 🙂

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  14. I write fantasy, so this is always a strange piece of advice to follow. We don’t really ‘know’ a lot of what we’re writing. Especially since the license to raise dragons is insanely hard to get. We can sprinkle in our knowledge of real world settings since it’s a ‘physical’ world that our characters use. After the basics, we need to adjust to make it more magical and that’s where things get screwy.

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  15. Excellent, Joan. I hadn’t thought of creating a Pinterest Board, but that’s a great idea. It would have helped me create the scenes in my-soon-to-be-published, particularly those scenes involving the Middle East. Thank you for the great suggestions!

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    • I started a board for my new series and have found it useful. I’ve also included photos of what I imagine my main characters look like. If I get stuck on describing a scene’s setting, I can easily refer to it without being tempted to browse the Internet for hours. 🙂


  16. These are all excellent pointers, Joan, and make interesting reading. My first books were based on showbiz because I knew a lot about how it worked – the management as well as the actors. My research centred on London, which I love and visited often, but the Internet was an enormous help. The challenge came when featured musicals made the next progression to Broadway and Los Angeles. I visited both, with my husband who’s a video fanatic, and his recordings made very useful memory joggers.
    I’m now writing my first thriller. To avoid “offending” any local police force, I’ve created a fictional London Borough with the help of several Facebook friends who suggested where I could sensibly locate it I have found the Metropolitan Police’s website and the articles it leads to very helpful.

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  17. Great post and points, Joan. One of the best comments I received on my first book said it had a foreign feel. I set it partly in Holland and a magical land under the North Sea, and I researched the heck out of it. Google Earth became my best friend. And I researched the hospital system and social customs and all sorts. From that one comment, I believe I hit the nail on the head. I agree that it’s always best to visit if you can, but if not, research as much as you can. For my second book, I needed a scene in a certain bus station. One complaint I found online gave me some unsavourty scents etc. to add in there, lols. Great point about some settings being generic. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  18. This is a great post, Joan. I do like the posts about how to describe people and places and doing research. My first two books are set in the UK in Bungay. I have been to Bungay although I haven’t spend long periods of time there. We have family there and so I have spent time with people who do live there. I have walked about the town and taken pictures of places that interest me. Some of these appear in my book promotional adverts and even in While the Bombs Fell. I have not been to all the places in Through the Nethergate. I had not been to Budapest when I wrote this book although I’ve been subsequently. I did as you suggest here, I researched and read up all about it. My short story, The Siren Witch, is actually in the Florida Glades. I’ve never been there but I pictured it from Marcia Meara’s book, Swamp Ghost and from her many pictures on her blog.

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