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There is a time and place for everything in your novel.

Setting has two components – place and time. Together, they are considered a fundamental ingredient of fiction along with plot, character, theme, point-of-view, and style. The setting of a novel gives readers a mental picture of the world your characters live in. It affects our perceptions of a story through visualization of the main backdrop and provides the foundation for underlying mood.

Place inevitably drives characters’ lives in your novel. Their actions are often reactions to their environment. For example, a character living in a depressed rural area may be presented very different options and opportunities compared to a character living in a big city. By the way, neither of these matters much in writing except in how you want to shape your plot and characters.

Whether the place you choose is your childhood neighborhood or the seventh moon of Bazinga, you’ll want to enter your first draft with a firm idea of where your prominent scenes will take place and what your environment looks like. Incorporate skills they’ve developed to survive, tools, and presumptions your characters bring into the story. These will all help paint a clear picture of the place where your characters exist.

Try not to choose a setting just because it sounds cool or because you’re familiar with it. Not that you can’t or shouldn’t but do look for settings that inherently drive your plot forward. Ask yourself questions like:

    • Will my story take place on Earth or some other realm of the imagination?
    • Will it be centered in a neighborhood, a city, or expanded to a range of locations?
    • What kind of society will surround your characters? Working class? The poor? A kids’ summer camp? The filthy rich? And so on.
    • Will the world be cast in shadows or will it inspire optimism?

Just like a character, a place in your novel should have its own ‘voice’. Write place like you would write any character. How do characters’ actions and choices affect their surrounds and vice versa? Will the setting itself cause hardships for the characters? Meaning, will the location create demands on the characters such as the wilds of Alaskan winter or the ghettos of an inner city? Will the environment play a key role in the plot?

Place and time period are almost inseparable but they are different. It is a question of where vs when your novel takes place. Will it span the course of a month, a year, or decades? The element of time in setting includes era, the passage of time, changing seasons, and jumps in time back and forward. Etiquette, attitude, manners, morals, customs, science, medicine, etc. will all be bound to the time period you choose.

Pick a period in time then log into the internet to start researching. Yes, you’ll need to research even today’s modern era, especially if your characters are particularly younger or older than you because they will see and experience the time period in ways you will not. Dialogue, plot, and characters can all be affected by when your novel occurs.

Focus on details that matter – some details will, some won’t. Most importantly, your readers need to feel like they are right there “in” the scene with you. A good technique is to use the senses (smell, taste, touch, sight and sound) in your descriptions to help reflect the time period. Whether writing in first or third person, use the senses from your characters’ points of view for full impact.

Pay attention to the manners, social conditions, religious beliefs, politics, nationalism, architectures, foods, farm lands, and so on because works of historical fiction, especially, are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity due to reader or genre expectations regarding accurate period details.
Having said that, I’ll add that there’s a fine line between enough authenticity and too much detailed description. Time period details are important but do not include all you find on the internet, or all you can make up if you’re creating futuristic or alternate universe environments. Allow readers to imagine aspects of the place and time period by alluding to some details or point them out in dialogue, for example.

Let me say a final word about multiple time periods. If your main character is a time traveler or you use flashbacks, or flash forwards extensively involving a number of time periods, then be prepared to do a lot more research on time periods not familiar to you.
To summarize, create a believable setting for your novel by consciously planning each element of setting.

  • Locale: ranging from the specific such as an apartment to a city, region, or country.
  • Time of year: like our example of winter in Alaska or summer at the lake.
  • Time of day: time of day influences the tone and atmosphere of a scene. 
  • Climate: the natural elements of your setting.


by Paul Hollis  (TopShelf Columnist)

Twitter @HollowManSeries / TheHollowManSeries.com