The Importance of Setting

Guest Post by Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.



Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin


Author: Jackie Houchin

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

13 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting”

  1. Thanks for reminding us, Pat, of the importance of descriptive settings, often the most neglected part of storytelling whether fiction or non-fiction. Thankfully, as you note, one can be an ‘armchair detective’ when researching places with the Internet under our fingers. It’s not that difficult to transport readers to a location so they can see, feel, and almost touch and hear it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “There is no frigate like a book,” said Emily Dickinson, and just like you said, Patty, the story should provide those views so the reader knows where he is. And you also clarified that the description shouldn’t ramble. I love both points. Thanks for dropping by our blog. Congratulations on your new series.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Don’t trust your memory – verify.” Yikes, I need to be reminded of this all the time. I knew it when I was a newspaper journalist, but in fiction…. I tend to fudge a little.


    1. When I wrote my first novel, which came out in 2004, I included a passage about a boat traveling north from Marina del Rey to Malibu. A very astute copy editor from the east coast informed me that the direction was actually west. He was right. I’m a sailor and should have known better. We always need to check things, even if we’re “sure.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I often buy books because of the setting because I want to be transported to another world. Reread the opening of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and you’ll see what I mean.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. G’day from Australia. Your advice was spot on, Patricia. A carefully drawn setting anchors the reader in the story. Nothing tops that ‘boots on the ground’ feeling you get when a writer conveys the setting well and transports you into the story.


  6. I love setting descriptions, as long as they’re concise and don’t ramble. Ideally they should be sprinkled throughout the story (same with character descriptions). I lived in LA for many years and I especially love to read anything set there—and I don’t have to deal with traffic!


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