Two of my greatest loves are travel and writing. I’ve had the fortunate chance to unite the two as a freelance travel writer. But I’ve found my passion for fascinating places is just as beneficial to my favorite kind of writing – fiction!
Writing is a pursuit that requires tons of alone time. It’s introverted by nature, and it’s easy to fall into the home office rut, where nearly all of what you “take in” is media – movies, books, television, the internet. While all that’s rich and varied and necessary, none of it beats real-life experiences as idea fodder for novels. And nothing creates experience like venturing outside your comfort zone – especially somewhere culturally and visually stunning.
While travel enhances all facets of writing, it impacts setting the most. I’m obsessed with setting, an obsession that only increases the more I travel. I’ve discovered settings don’t have to be simple backdrops to the action. When well-written, they can step out of the background and interact with our characters in compelling ways – often ways we’d never expect. A perfect example of the glorious serendipity of writing!
When I say setting, most people think of what I call Macrosetting: the city, town or area where the bulk of the story is set. Macrosetting needs to be determined early in the brainstorming stage, because the key to a dynamic Macrosetting is weaving it in with every aspect of the story.
Exciting Macrosettings — like dystopian Chicago in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, or contemporary Paris in Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss – definitely enhance stories. But not every book can be set in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, or the remote Wyoming badlands. Often, you can look to your own town or state. It might not seem particularly exciting to you, but to readers who don’t live there, it’s fresh and new. The key is searching for the details that make it unique – especially the details only the locals know.
Even stories set in Anytown, Anystate should take advantage of Microsetting: settings at a scene-by-scene level. Some books set every scene in the same three or four places, a merry-go-round from the classroom to the cafeteria to someone’s house. But there are so many other options, no matter where your story takes place.
With every scene I write, I ask myself where I can place it to make it more exciting. For example, a conversation in the bedroom could take place under the pier at sunset, or in an overgrown vacant lot, or at the edge of the wetlands, or on the rooftop of the local Big Box store. On a bed in the forest, like in Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere. On the swings at night, like in John Green’s Looking For Alaska. In a dark, empty football field, while all the other kids are at a dance, and your characters can hear the music, eerie and far-off – that’s from my debut, Like Mandarin.
Sure, coming up with unique locations is easier when you travel. But I know we can’t all jump on a plane abroad right this minute. (Though it can be cheaper than you think. And if it’s fear stopping you, email me ASAP!) Here are some ways to explore the power of setting closer to home.
Try to have someone else drive so you can look out the window. Train or bus trips work just as well. Even if you can’t take an interstate odyssey, even just driving an hour or two on different roads can open your mind. I like to free write what I see – no pressure, only observation. Our memories aren’t as sharp as our senses, and it’s amazing how many details I use from these exercises.
Travel in your own town.
Take walks in neighborhoods you’ve never been. Not just the main streets, but the residential streets. I find I’m fascinated by the variation in people’s homes and yards. It’s impossible not to wonder who lives inside that purple house, that crumbling adobe, that house with the iron gates and drawn blinds. There’s a story there. And another just next door.
If your heart’s set on a setting you’re not able to visit, or to fill in the gaps, research is vital. But research deeply. Don’t just aim for the stereotypes, the bolded symbols of a place we all know about – autumn leaves in New England, foggy forests in the Pacific Northwest, sunny beaches in southern California. Sure, you can use those, but to make your setting stand out, search deeper. Read books set in your place of choice, both fiction and nonfiction. Speak to people who live there. It can be as easy as asking around, on Twitter or Facebook, or on writing forums like Verla Kay and Absolute Write. People love to talk about where they live! And they’ll provide you with unique details you’ll rarely find from a superficial Google.
There’s such a varied, colorful world out there, and we writers are gifted with the tools to share it through our books. Yet it’s too easy to get stuck in our offices, facing the familiar rectangles of our computers. The more visuals, the more sounds and smells and tastes we bring into our lives, the more vibrant our stories become.
Get out there! Observe. Make your settings sing.