Creating a Strong Sense of Place, by Jill Alexander

I know at least three truths about Prosper County that don’t appear in Sweetheart or Paradise and His Smokin’ Squeezebox: When the blacktop roads spidering through the piney woods soak up the August sun, the tar turns to modeling clay beneath the bare feet of children whose hearts are equally impressionable. I know too that in town, the big town with the mall and the downtown square, there’s a shiny-shoed preacher standing high on a Bible and with a trumpeting, confident voice leads a whole congregation of believers down a narrow rabbit hole. And I know that for the kids whose toes shape the tar and whose minds find before they follow, dreams don’t stop at the city limit sign.

Indeed by the time a novel is complete, I have a much larger sense of the story’s setting than what I reveal to the reader. Those intimate, unspoken and unwritten details of time and place enhance my ability to shape a story, build a world. I certainly did not know all the details of setting on the front end of writing my stories. However, as with character development, setting a story begins with a broad stroke of understanding. As I began in the first chapter of The Sweetheart of Prosper County to paint the downtown square through the narrator Austin’s eyes, the basic foundations of her community became clear. And in Paradise and His Smokin’ Squeezebox, the setting extends naturally into the rural countryside.

Prosper County—the place, the people, the atmosphere—exists only between the pages of my books. Although realistic, Prosper County is a work of fiction in the same way that Hogwarts and Middle-earth are. A strong sense of place transcends genre and tethers the reader to the story, gives them terra firma on which to stand and experience right along side the characters.

The basics of setting

At a superficial minimum, setting is simply physical background. The first task of any storyteller is to know the basic setting just like he or she knows the narrator, the characters and their fears and desires. Whether writing fantasy or realistic fiction—any genre—consider and convey these beginning elements:

  • Landscape. More than town, landscape is topography. The characters may find hills to climb or quicksand to avoid.
  • Time and Season. Plot occurs within a time block, so a setting should be textured with details and images evocative of the period. In Prosper County, springtime brings bluebonnets. In Dickens’ 19th Century in England, debtor’s prisons and poverty weigh heavily.

 


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