Previous articles in this series: Finding Ideas; Finding Time; Pantser Vs. Plotter; Characters;
Point Of View; Dialogue
Look how far you've come! There's only one little thing you're lacking - a place for the story to happen. Next to strong characters, setting is the most important aspect of your story. After all, you can't just have your characters hanging out in space. Well, actually you can. The movie Gravity had the characters floating in space, but space itself was the setting; it's dark and cold and filled with stars, you can see the ship and Earth, it's silent . . . .
In its most basic sense, setting is where and when a story takes place. It can be real or made up, and it can change as the characters move through their storyscape. It's up to you as the writer to decide. Keep in mind the kind of story you're writing before choosing your setting. The setting for an historical romance will be much different from that of a modern murder mystery, which in turn will be much different from a futuristic story of space exploration.
If you're setting your story in a real time and place, do your research. Even if you've been to a place before, fires, floods, or earthquakes can alter the landscape. If you're setting a murder mystery in New Orleans today, you need to see what the city looks like today, not how it looked on that vacation you took back before Katrina hit.
But wait, you say, I'm writing a fantasy story so I can just make it up as I go along. Sometimes this can be even harder than setting a story in a real place. With a real place you're working with established landmarks and customs, you know how the economy and government work, but with fantasy you have to create all of this. Do the people in your world live in houses or trees or caves? What kind of class system is there? How do they get from one place to another? What do they eat? You get the idea.
However, setting is more than just establishing the time and place of your story, it helps make your story feel real to your readers. And how do you do this? The attention is in the details.
If I were to go to your story's setting, what would I be eating? Would I be sitting down to an elegant dinner of lobster at a sea side restaurant, or hush puppies and crawdads at the local diner? Popular foods vary from region to region and country to country, making use of this is a good way to reinforce your setting. Again, do your research. You're not going to find Peking Duck at a Medieval feast.
The weather and seasons are other good ways to help establish setting. Winter in California is much different from winter in Montana. Spring in most areas means rain, while summers can bring dryness as well as heat. The possibility of things like monsoons, typhoons, and hurricanes can affect the way people behave at certain times of the year. This will differ from areas where the climate is more temperate.
In your fantasy setting, is the weather hot? cold? rainy? windy? This will affect how your characters dress as well as how easily they're able to travel. Planting time will have a different feel from harvest time, and the different seasons are often marked by festivals.
Landmarks are an excellent way of not only establishing, but enhancing a setting. A crime drama set in New York City in the 80's will show the twin towers in the cityscape, while a mystery set at the turn of the century will have the Empire State building. What would London, England, be without Big Ben or the Tower Bridge? Even better to have these landmarks destroyed during a futuristic, alien invasion. The unique architecture of a place can add depth to your story.
The streets of the town or city where your story takes place can also be important. When using a real place you need to pay attention to whether they're streets or avenues, whether they're lettered or numbered. Our town has made it a habit of naming streets after former mayors and other important citizens. Do the streets of your made-up setting run straight, or do they wind haphazardly through your town or city? Are they dirt paths or cobblestone?
Use all five of your senses when establishing your setting. Don't just describe what can be seen, describe what can be heard, felt, smelled , and tasted as well. Your historical novel is set in London in the 1850's . . . you know about the Great Stink right? The countryside can be just as noisy as the city, but it's a different kind of noise. A village on the coast is going to feel damp, while a desert will feel hot and dry.
What kind of birds are in the trees, and do they sing, chirp, twitter? For that matter, what kind of trees and flowers are in your world, or are there any? What type of furniture does your character use? How does he get from point A to point B - walk? ride? fly? Even if you don't use all of this information, it's still good to know it to keep your story real.
For more on settings, try one of the following links:
Tips For Establishing Setting In Your Novel
How to Write a Setting
Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life
Creating a Setting