When you finish reading a book, what sticks in your head? The plot? The characters and the journeys they’ve been on? The emotions you’ve experienced while reading it? Hopefully it’s all three. But does the setting also stick in your head? If a setting is developed really well in a novel, it has the power to become a character in itself, as memorable as the hero whose journey you’ve followed.
If you’ve ever read any of the Harry Potter books, the Lord of the Rings series, or The Chronicles of Narnia you’ll understand what this means because Rowling, Tolkien and Lewis all create settings that are as memorable as the characters and plots. Some might argue that it’s easier to create a strong setting in a fantasy book because the author is creating a new and unfamiliar world and therefore needs to help their readers visualise it. I beg to differ. For me, the Yorkshire Dales are just as much a character in the James Herriot books as the human and animal characters, and the Dales are not a figment of the author’s imagination.
I’ve written seventeen books so far in two overall settings – the fictional North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitsborough Bay and Hedgehog Hollow which is a hedgehog rescue centre deep in the rolling countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds. I’ll be adding a third setting in the Lake District to my repertoire in 2023. I see each of these settings as being equally as important as the plot and the characters.
Why is setting so important?
· Escapism – it gives readers and listeners an escape from their world into our world
· It can complement the story and add another layer to it e.g. cosy and warm for a romance book or dark and sinister for a crime story
· A sense of familiarity – they can picture it and, for some genres, the reader will want to keep returning, meaning they’ll embrace a series or several standalones in the same setting
· Education – they may even learn something from it. I get many messages and reviews commenting on what readers have learned about hedgehogs from my Hedgehog Hollow series or about the dangers of the sea from The Starfish Café series (one of my Whitsborough Bay settings)
So how do you create a strong setting? This is a huge topic and I’m only going to brush the surface here with three overall tips.
Step 1 – Is your setting real or fictional?
This is a key starting point. There are pros and cons for each and the strength of those will vary depending on your genre.
I made a decision for my first series to create fictional settings inspired by real places. Whitsborough Bay is geographically placed where my hometown of Scarborough is but the town is a mix of Scarborough, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and my imagination. This gives me flexibility to add in whatever I need to make my story work but gives readers who know and love the area a sense of familiarity.
Step 2 – Develop your setting
This is about you making your setting real and there’s so much involved in this stage. Is it a village, town or city? Is it by the coast or in the countryside? How big is it? What sort of people live there? Is there a strong community feel? What do the buildings look like? What’s the atmosphere? I could keep going with dozens more questions but I’m sure you get the point.
If your setting is fictional, I’d suggest drawing a basic map which you can keep building. Don’t worry if you’re not an artist as this doesn’t have to see the light of day! Several of my Whitsborough Bay books are set on Castle Street, which is full of independent shops and cafés. I’ve created the street as a spreadsheet with coloured blocks showing where the businesses are in relation to each other and I’ve added in detail about the buildings such as how many storeys the business is and whether it’s double-fronted. This has been invaluable as, at one point, I realised I had three shops all directly opposite Seaside Blooms, the first business I created. Oops!
Cutting out pages from magazines, creating a storyboard on Canva or setting up a Pinterest board can help with inspiration too. Find what works best for you.
Step 3 – Use the senses to bring your setting to life
When we write about a setting, most authors will do so visually and that’s absolutely needed. But a setting is truly brought to life when we use the other senses because the combination of senses are what really transports the readers into our world.
When I’m writing my Whitsborough Bay books, I might talk about the sweet smells of doughnuts and candy floss mingled with the coconut of sun lotion and I might talk about the hum of the jet boat on the sea over cries of gulls and squeals of children. Instantly, readers are transported to the beach and can hear, smell and even taste the setting.
I’m always mindful of the changing seasons and how they affect the weather, the light, the colours, giving the setting a potentially different feel.
If you’d like to know more, I’m running a course through RNA Learning in March 2023 on ‘How to write a novel or series in a coastal or country setting’. This one-month programme goes into detail about all of these areas and so much more to help you create a setting that will stick in your readers’ minds and, if it’s a series, make them want to return to again and again.
I have so many reviews including comments on the settings and how much readers love them and wish they were real. With each new book, they’re returning somewhere they feel safe and comfortable, giving them the escapism they want.
Jessica Redland is a course tutor for the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). RNA Learning delivers a wide range of online courses, short workshops and author events. The National Centre for Writing has negotiated a 20% discount for our members for the RNA’s month-long courses.
Jessica Redland is a bestselling author of emotional but uplifting stories of love, friendship, family and community. Her Whitsborough Bay books transport readers to the stunning North Yorkshire Coast where she lives with her husband, daughter and sprocker spaniel. Her Hedgehog Hollow series, set in a hedgehog rescue centre, takes readers into the beautiful rolling countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds.
Redland’s Readers (Facebook group exclusive for fans of Whitsborough Bay and Hedgehog Hollow)