Recently I’ve had the privilege to judge openings of manuscripts for writing contests. Most openings are fine, but occasionally I’ll find myself asking, “Where am I?” Grounding your reader in the setting of a novel is very important.
Sometimes expanding on the setting can be as easy as adding a name to a location. Instead of writing about a generic airport, place me at LAX or JFK. I immediately know where I am with little verbiage.
The easiest way to ground a reader in setting is to print a date and location stamp—1776, Wilton, Connecticut. This is done a lot in historical novels. In opening pages an author should limit back story and RUE (resist the urge to explain), so if your setting needs paragraphs of explanation, a time stamp gets the job done with minimal words.
The setting of a manuscript affects your characters. I live in Wisconsin, but before I moved here many years ago, I had never heard the term bubbler used for a drinking fountain. I just returned from Michigan where a left turn is a U turn. Go figure. Readers will pick up on location inconsistencies and doubt an author’s authority. Make it a point to get facts correct for your reader. If you live where your novel is set, no problem. If you don’t live in your setting, consult maps, travel videos, personal journals, YouTube, and interview locals to help you discover little known facts about your setting.
As a reader, I would like to know if it’s day or night in the opening. This might seem trivial, but in my genre of Biblical fiction, there can be drama in how much light is shining. The woman at the well in John 4, went at noon to avoid other women. Nicodemus went to Jesus at night to spare his reputation as a Pharisee. Daylight will affect how much characters see especially if a crime is taking place. A witness can give more details about a crime that happens in broad daylight than if it’s a rainy night.
Also keep in mind the temperature of an area. I’m not MacGyver, but I’m a Midwesterner. My trunk carries salt, bottled water, a scraper, and blankets in the winter. Half of the year, I am swathed in many layers of clothing. People who live in Florida are laughing right about now. They are probably dressed in less clothing than me.
Settings also have scents. My first trip to Hawaii created a love of plumeria blossoms. Have you ever smelled fresh cut pineapple? Amazingly fruity. Or what about sounds? The seashore will have gulls crying or foghorns rumbling. When I hear steel drum music, I remember a cruise excursion in the Caribbean.
Novels are meant to transport readers to a different time and place. Using details to make your setting authentic will engage your readers and sweep them away.
Barbara M. Britton was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but currently lives in Wisconsin and loves the snow—when it accumulates under three inches. She writes Christian Fiction for teens and adults. Barb kicked off her Tribes of Israel series with the release of “Providence: Hannah’s Journey” and continues to bring little known Bible stories to light. Barb is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America and Wisconsin Romance Writers of America. Barb has a nutrition degree from Baylor University but loves to dip healthy strawberries in chocolate.