26 April 2016 | Writing

5 tips for writing about setting

The Yarra River flowing through Melbourne city Australia

My second children’s novel is set around the Yarra River in Richmond, Melbourne. Yesterday, we all went for a walk/cycle/scooter ride around the Yarra, and while I made sure the kids didn’t fall into the river, I took photos and notes on my phone.

This is what I was looking for:

  1. The season – what season/season is your novel set in? Think about the weather, the clothes your characters are wearing, the light at different times of the day, the colour of the trees, the balance between inside and outside living, the food they will eat. If your characters are experiencing the harshest winter of all times, they are hardly likely to be having an earth-shattering conversation with the antagonist on the beach with the glaring sun on their bare shoulders.
  2. The five senses – touch, taste, sight, sound, smell. Are your characters appreciating the different colours of the changing autumn leaves or are they smelling roast chicken and an apple pie in the kitchen? Are they eating hot chips at the footy or are they smelling the jasmine in spring? Can they touch the wet grass in winter or are they pulling up handfuls of freshly-mown grass in spring? Can they hear a street protest from their city apartment or can they hear kids playing from a nearby school?
  3. Is your setting quiet or loud? Is your protagonist surrounded by lots of people constantly? Does she work in a noisy environment? Does he live by himself or with others? Does she like to do things by herself or with others? Does your protagonist live in a city or rural area? Is your protoganist surrounded by music or silence?
  4. View the setting through your character’s eyes, not your eyes. My 12 year-old protagonist is not going to notice the same sorts of things that I will. He’s a street artist so on his river walk he’s looking at the graffiti as much as he’s looking at the river. He’s going to notice other kids’ bikes and shoes, not anything to do with adults.
  5. Use the setting to add details to your plot. My protagonist is going to have conversations while cycling on the river track, so he might have to call back over his shoulder to his friend behind him. There are office buildings and apartment blocks and restaurants looming over the river – there are characters who live or work in those buildings who will interact with my protagonist.

C. S. Lakin in The twelve key pillars of novel construction¬†writes, ‘The more you have the setting of each scene affect and impact your characters in some way, the more real and personal your story will feel.’

It’s hard to imagine Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights being so mysterious and brooding without the backdrop of the moors. Barbara Kingsolver’s The poisonwood bible is set predominantly in the Belgian Congo – the place is almost a character it is so important. The remoteness of the lighthouse off the Western Australian coast in M. L. Stedman’s The light between oceans means that the characters make decisions based on their isolated living there.

The settings in our lives are important. Bet you can remember something particular about your grandparents’s house – I remember the coloured aluminium cups with silver bases, lined up neatly on top of my grandparents’ fridge. The table you eat at every night, your favourite restaurant and the view from one particular corner in it, a favourite beach, the street corner where you meet your children after school … these shape our lives and our daily interactions with others.

Which books evoke the strongest sense of setting for you? Is it an amazing international location or is it the local and familiar?

Her sheer audacity


Terri Dixon

Karen what a beautiful day you had yesterday to soak up atmosphere for your book. Hope you were inspired.

I love to read books set in city/country I am travelling in. On this year’s list “Our Man in Havana” How lucky am I?

Terri Dixon.

April 26, 2016 at 8:45 am


Hi Karen

I have many favourite settings that continue to fire the imagination and senses and add depth/texture to experiences today – Under the Tuscan (walking hand in hand amongst the vineyards under the mediterranean sun), Tolkein’s Middle Earth (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings), Great Expectations (the meeting of Magwitch and Pip in the graveyard) to name a few. The Yarra is a wonderful location to draw on for your novel setting, look forward to where it goes.

April 26, 2016 at 9:06 am


One of my favourites was Ruth Cracknell’s Journey from Venice – read it before and after visiting, both times, giving more meaning to the story and own experience

April 26, 2016 at 12:17 pm


We went for a Yarra walk too – well, Rob and I did! I’ve just finished The Strays and it’s setting was very close to home for me, with the references to Box Hill, the Surrey Dive and Apollo Bay. Whilst ‘close to home’ settings may lack a sense of escape and romanticism, they do make the stories very relatable. I have felt similarly when reading Addition by Toni Jordan and the Murray Whelan books by Shane Maloney.

April 26, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    Karen Comer

    Loved ‘The Strays’ and ‘Addition’ – haven’t read anything by Shane Maloney. I like stories close to home, too – makes you see familiar areas with fresh eyes.

    April 28, 2016 at 4:10 pm


Oh my gosh yes! What would pride and prejudice be without the English countryside and pemberley

April 30, 2016 at 9:44 am

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