Workshop: Applying Setting to a Story

Vision 66

Workshop: Applying Setting to a Story


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2012, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved



Obviously people who are writing historically-based fiction (alternate history, historical fiction, historical fantasy) all need to do research to understand their settings and this is not a workshop they are likely to need. This does not just mean the historical aspects, either; they had better understand the basics of the place they are writing about, from animal and plant life to the weather patterns. People writing contemporary stories will need to have their facts straight as well -- and a bit of research could have done wonders for a number of stories I've read. However, they are not the only ones. There comes a time when every writer of science fiction and fantasy should do some basic research.


You do not want to repeatedly use the same setting for your books, right? You may think cosmetic changes are enough: a different flower here, a lake outside the window instead of an ocean view, etc. If everything you write has the same basic groundwork, you may find your readers getting bored without even realizing why. Part of this is because you will use the same sorts of problems related to your background, even when you don't realize you are doing so.


So how do you make something different? Whether you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you may be inspired by a historical time period and decide to use it as a basis for your story world. This can work in both fantasy and science fiction as long as you learn how to adapt and change. You do not intend, for instance, to make your story an alternate Egypt, but you do want the feelof it. (For science fiction writers, think Dune.)


So you drop a civilization on the banks of desert river and there you go, right?


What sort of plants can you grow in that setting? What do the people eat? If there are no trees, how do they build boats to sail up and down that river? What can you change and adapt from other river-based civilizations?


You want your world to be unique! You don't want to borrow from real life.


But you are doing so anyway. Everything you write is based in something you know, and quite often story world building is created from half-remember history class assignments or borrowed from some other fiction book. Often, writers don't even remember where they picked up this or that little bit, and they may use it without remembering the larger scene, which may contain vital information about why or how.


You've heard the saying: Write what you know.


Well, here's the real truth: Write what you can learn, and learn everything that even remotely interests you. Every bit of nonfiction fact you pick up and store away in your brain is there for future stories. Learn about how other cultures survived in their special settings. Do note cards or notebooks or whatever you want of interesting little facts. File them away from the future. Read through them now and then; you'll be surprised how much inspiration you'll find there.


People who write 'generic' Middle Ages fantasy are especially in danger of creating lackluster settings without depth or originality in which their characters pass without interacting. That doesn't mean you have to give up the setting to write something better. It does mean you need to realize there is a lot more to it than some castles and towers and few cottages for the peasants. The view of this as the 'dark age' of western civilization ignores the multitude of inventions and changes that took place during that time. (Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph Gies ISBN 0-05-0925817)


People who write science fiction should be equally interested in cultural settings. We are not all one people on Earth, and there is no reason to believe that we will be a homogenous group once we spread out through the stars or even just survive to a future on earth. Yes, there are tales of dystopian, melting pot futures, but perhaps you want to look at some other future.


And if you want to write about alien society, then you would do really well to look at the way various civilizations have worked, from Ancient China to Ancient Maya.


Exercise 1:


Choose one aspect of modern life (food distribution, marriage rites, political control, etc.) and study how those things were handled in two different cultures you are not familiar with, either ancient or modern. Take notes. Be prepared because even a simple study of something can lead to a plot bunny infestation.


Start at the bottom


This is where you, as the author starts making decisions on what you are going to write about. If your characters are living in cottages along a riverside, you had better know what's available to make those buildings. Start by looking at various biomes ( ) to see what is accessible in each setting. This also carries over into what the people can hunt to eat and even, in most cases, what plant and animals they can raise.


By choosing a biome you are limiting your world which means you can better understand the key pieces you choose for it and keep your choices within a reasonable range. Even if you are creating an alien world, the idea of biomes still apply. Look at the plant and animal life of an area and adapt it to alien life. Give reasons why that creature has scales or why that plant grows flat to the ground.


So you choose your biome, set up some of the 'feel' for it from what trees are growing to how often it rains.


What materials do the locals use for building? If the building materials are not natural or are imported, where do they come from and how? Why aren't people using local material instead?


If they are using local material, what types are available? Stone? What type, how is it dressed and laid for building? Bricks? Who makes them and how? Wood? What sort of trees, and is the wood treated in any way?


Reeds are popular along rivers in warmer climates, but how often do they need to be replaced? Remember that some of those climates are also high in humidity and rain. All settlements by rivers are


Many people lived in huts made from animals skins, often portable in one way or another. And, as an aside, when these people settled down, they often built their first huts in circular styles based on the portable homes they'd had as nomads.


What do your people eat? Local or imported food? What is available during a disaster? (Because, you know, we often have disasters in our books!)


What animals are available for food and clothing? What animals are dangerous?


Exercise 2


Put together a building for a biome you are not readily familiar with. What is used to build the walls? What sort of support to keep the walls in place? How about the ceiling? Floor? Doors? Are there interior rooms?



Avoiding info dumps


The problem with research and decisions of these types is that writers want to include all the info in the story. Sometimes they do so in poorly constructed info dumps which read more like an article than a story. The way to avoid info dumps is to work the information into the action of the story, rather than listing it as something separate.


This is an info dump:


A dozen huts built from reeds cut along the riverbank and tied into bundles stood in the opening. The bundles had been placed against a framework of pliable branches to form a conical hut. Racks for drying fish stood outside the doors.


This works the material into the story:


The young men had gone down to the riverbank before dawn, Harin yelling and cursing as he directed them to cut the reeds and tie them into the bundles needed to repair huts damaged in last night's storm. I went past, heading downstream to throw my net. His yelling might scare the fish my way. At least we might eat well tonight, those of us who had survived the first storm of the season.


You do not have to give all the information at once. The shape of the huts and the rack for drying fish need not appear all at once just because that's how you imagine seeing the village as the author. The author is an outsider.


This is one more hint for writing about a setting: remember that to the people living there (which will likely include your point of view character), the place is normal. They are not any more likely to make note of everyday things as we are. How often do you think about the construction of your floors? How often do you study the pattern of your walls? Outsiders make special note of these things, and authors are the outsiders in their stories. Make certain you are mentioning things the POV character were make note of, or if you need something noticed, give your character a reason to look at it, but be certain what he says is in his voice and tied to his culture. For instance, he wouldn't mention the lack of rock walls unless he had been somewhere he could have taken notice of such things.



Exercise 3


Imagine a character coming home from work in the biome setting you used in Exercise 2. What sort of work did he do? How far does he have to go? What type of vehicle, if any, does he use? What does she or he see and hear?



Moving your story outside of a biome you are too familiar with can often make your far more aware of the basics of the setting than if you stick to your usual grounds.