Friday 19 May 2017

Making things up: finding the place for your story

by Teri Terry

Part 5 in Making Things Up: a blog series about the creative process

How do you choose the setting(s) for your story?

This is something I get asked about regularly, and honesty will make me admit: it isn't something I've always given the attention it deserves. With most of my earlier writing before I was published it was often the last thing on my mind. My characters and what was going to happen to them took centre stage, and where these (usually unpleasant!) things would happen was kind of by the by. As a reader I've also always had a horror of long descriptive passages, and describing where my characters were wasn't high on my list of writing fun. Being asked to use all five senses to describe a place in a writing workshop is kind of my idea of writing hell. 

It's fair to say I picked the opening setting for my first published novel, Slated - a village in the Chilterns - mostly because it was where I lived. To start with I had to remember to deliberately add some details of place to give the readers a picture of where the characters were, but felt I struggled to do it in a way that didn't feel I was just describing something for the sake of it. My character, Kyla, really helped me in this regard: having had her memory wiped, things were new to her. Therefore it was natural for her to notice details of place in a way a character generally won't if they are somewhere very familiar to them.

Somewhere along the way as I was writing Slated, something
interesting started to happen. The setting began to develop a life of its own in the story: the footpaths and canal ways became the other way to get around, unseen, for my characters, and this became vital for the plot. 

By the time I'd got to the third book of the trilogy, Shattered, I'd begun to expand how I used and related to settings. The scenes in Shattered in the stone circle at Castle Rigg are a good example. The feel the place evokes, the touch of the stone and so on were important to my character when she remembered going there with her father. 

The thing I learned wasn't to change how I approach writing, which is always from the guts of the character - but to accept that sometimes experiences and memories of place are part of the guts of the character. If they're important to my character, they're important to me.

Back then it was probably mostly serendipity that helped me along with the choice of settings. Now I have begun to approach it with more thought and deliberation, but I still haven't answered the question of how to make the choice.

To answer this question, another must be tackled first:

Is the setting another character in the story, or incidental to what takes places?

A story can take place in an almost unnoticed setting (like my pre-published stories often did); or it can be on the moors of Wuthering Heights. I know which I'd rather write!

Yesterday was the book birthday of Contagion: the first in the Dark Matter trilogy. When I started writing it I had the Scottish settings where the story begins firmly in mind. I've recently blogged on the Scottish book trust website on five ways to choose a setting, specifically in relation to Contagion. Rather than repeating myself I'll put a link below, but the more I think about it the more I think this: while the setting has to serve the story, it also absolutely must inspire me, the writer, to write it.
That is the overriding memory I have of writing Contagion: the sense of the
first time I went to Killin, and just knew: my character, Shay, lives here. This place is part of who she is.

Here's the linky*: 5 ways to choose a novel's setting, Scottish Book Trust website.
     *I apologise for linking to another blog rather writing anew, but I just moved house, have a head cold, and a zillion new book events: I hope you'll forgive me!

Contagion, on the beach:
it rather sounds like a dangerous sort of cocktail ...
... some things can't be cured, can't be killed, can't be stopped.

Callie is missing, and her brother Kai is desperate to find her. When Shay realises she was the last one to see Callie before she went missing, she contacts Kai. Together they race to find her, but can they outrun the epidemic?

A few weeks ago, at Cockermouth School:
 one of the very first school events for Contagion!


  1. I think when writers write about places that are part of their soul it comes through very powerfully - How Green Was My Valley, A Scots Quair. These are stories about communities where the rhythms of the language itself seem to grow out of the land. I think a powerful sense of place gives a book a special authenticity. I find it's impossible to reproduce that depth in a fantasy world unless it's founded on somewhere real. I just finished edits that were mostly about clarifying the details of place. I had it vaguely in my head but my editor wanted more. She was right. It's now a better book.
    Hope the event went well.

  2. oh my goodness, I absolutely agree that setting must inspire. I LOVE Scotland!


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