Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Your Novel's Setting: Does It Have Soul?

I've been gone for a month, and I apologize to my followers. My family has been, and still is, going through some very traumatic times right now, and writing of any kind has been difficult. But I'm back, and I'll try to begin posting regularly again. Thanks for bearing with me.

In ancient times, when people were superstitious, or spiritual, or probably a little of both, they believed that "places" had a soul. That soul gave that place... a town, a forest, a special gathering place for the people...its own unique identity, something that set it apart from everywhere else. The people even believed that the soul of a "place" could influence the behavior and attitudes of the people living in or near it.

When we write, we set out novel in a place: a town, a city, a desert or forest, an alien planet... somewhere. We don't have to be writing historical fiction to research the time era and the place that we are writing about. We should be doing that for every place we write about, no matter how contemporary the story is, or even if it is fantasy or science fiction. After all, even fantasy and sci/fi have to be believable.

Here is an exercise for you to do, and right now, it's all mental. Think about the town or city you live in: first, think about the downtown: the office buildings, the streets, the hub of the commercial area, the bars and restaurants, the shops,  the freeways if there are any. Now think about what distinguishes these places, these areas, from the outlying or suburban areas. What goes on during the day that doesn't go on at night? what are the activities at night that can affect these places, such as the office buildings, the bars, the streets? Is there gang activity? Who owns the streets in the downtown area at night? Is there crime during the day, or only at night?

What are the lonely places, the places where the homeless congregate, the dangerous places? Are these only within the downtown area, or do they also spread out into suburbia? If they are also in suburbia, where are they, what are they? Are there empty, desolate buildings? Run-down parks the city can no longer afford to keep up? Where is the cemetary? Is it well-kept, or in disarray through lack of care? Is it a dark and scary place, or instead, a quiet, gentle place for contemplation, a place to go to grieve privately?

Where do the children play? Where do teens go for amusement and/or excitement? Are there places where elderly men gather to play lawn-bowling or checkers or chess? Where do the women gather for morning coffee after seeing the kids off to school?

What is the soul of the city? Is it somewhere, or something, within the city itself? An historical monument, a dedicated park or building, perhaps even a museum dedicated to the original founders of the town, or an ancient tree in a close-by woods that commenorates a time when the only inhabitants of that woods wore loin cloths?

When you think about and answer these questions about your own town, it brings you closer to the soul and the spirit of the town... the very essence of the place where you live. And when you give this some long and careful thought, perhaps you realize that this town, this place you know and love, has helped in its own way to create the individual that you are today.

To bring this back to writing: doesn't the place your novel is set in deserve the same thought and consideration that you've just given your own town? Even if your setting is totally and completely fictional, even if it is set in a fantasy world of your own making, or on an alien planet, you will still have the elements of place that every novel setting should have.

Ask some of the same questions of your fictional place that you've just answered above. Find the soul of your time and setting, and see if it doesn't enrich your story, inspire your writing, and create greater depths of behaviors and actions in your characters.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. I hope things settle down for you soon, Mikki!

    1. I hope so, Katie. At the moment, it doesn't look like it. But I will keep trying to post more regularly. Thanks for your thoughts, Katie.

  2. I think for fantasy writers, the soul is very important. It's what's going to make their world feel real.

    Very intriguing post, Mikki. I'm glad you are finally recovering enough to be able to blog a little bit. I've missed you, and hope everthing becomes less tragic, and easier to handle.

  3. Thank you, Kitty Kat. I'm afraid the news is not good, and things are not getting better. I just keep praying that God will hear me. I am going to try to post regularly from now on, even if it's not more than once a week.

  4. Great post, Mikki! I love to create fictional worlds or even towns. It gives me freedom. Though I did set one of my novels in the area where I currently live and that was a lot of fun.

    1. Thanks, Kelly, I'm glad you enjoyed it. And congratulations on your book deal...I have no doubt that you're going to be the next Rowlings or Meyers, only with MG kids! You are well on your way, and the kids who read your books are very lucky, indeed.

  5. This is definitely something I need to work on - giving my settings more soul. Thanks for a great post, Mikki.

  6. Interesting idea. Never really thought about a place having a soul, just about places being inherently evil. But I guess you can't have one without the other.

    Setting is one of the things I really strive to get right on editing. I don't work on it too much during first draft writing. I tend towards getting plot and character right during the first draft. But whatever way it works for a writer, I agree that setting is very important.