Setting: More than a place


29 March 2024
Novelist Ginny Myers Sain discusses making atmospheric setting a character in your story

I’ve always been drawn to place in stories. As a kid, I ate up mysteries set in haunted houses or abandoned carnivals. As a teenager, I loved gothic novels, with their dark passages and overgrown gardens.

Even now, the surest way to get me to pick up any book is to give it a real-world setting that feels a little bit magical. Give me salt-crusted seaside towns, lush tropical wonderlands full of hidden dangers, hotels that were once grand but that have fallen into disrepair, or a cluster of cabins tucked just at the edge of a dark forest.

Most writers I know start a story by focusing on the who and the what. But I always start with the where. Before plot, before characters, before dialogue, before anything else, I begin to see where a story will take place.

Then I start to ask who might live there, and what kinds of stories they might have to tell. What kinds of problems could they have? That’s when I hear the narrative voice, which means that character is not far behind. Once I know the place and the characters, I can get to know their stories…and there comes the plot.

Because I like my real world stories to have just a little thread of the magical running through them, I’m especially drawn to 'in between' places. To me, those are the places where magic feels most possible. In my first book, Dark and Shallow Lies, La Cachette, Louisiana, is a tiny bayou town that sits on a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. In Secrets So Deep, Whisper Cove is a fog-shrouded theatre clinging to the rocky Connecticut coastline. And in my newest book, One Last Breath, Mount Orange is a tiny community at the edge of Florida’s vast and tangled interior.

Kirkus Reviews had this to say about Dark and Shallow Lies: 'Like the waters of the Mississippi eventually spill out and roll over the bayous, the setting colors every event in the story with a darkly beautiful splash of Southern gothic; it’s perhaps even more of a central character than either Grey or Elora.'

Since I love writing these kinds of atmospheric settings, I wanted to share three of my best tips for making the settings in your stories more than just a place. A really good setting can become a character if you bring it to life for your readers in the right way.

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First, focus on the tiny details, not the big picture. A small, clear image can tell us so much about a much bigger world. Instead of describing a vast, marshy landscape, describe how one single tree at the edge of the water has become so swollen that its trunk has split open. Tell us about the curling leaves that float in the black water around its base or the Spanish moss that drips from its dead limbs. If you’re writing about a fictional village, don’t just mention cobblestone streets and old houses. Tell us how those stones have eroded over time, leaving gaps that cause people to trip. Tell us about the way the paint is peeling on the blue shutters and how one side of the leaning steps is sinking into the dirt.

Next is my absolute favorite tip for writing really good settings. Don't just think of setting as what your character sees, or even what your character hears or smells. Think of setting as something your characters must move through in a three dimensional way. What about the setting makes moving through the space challenging? What in the setting must your characters fight against? In Dark and Shallow Lies, it’s the water and the sucking mud and the alligators and snakes. The oppressive heat. In Secrets So Deep, it’s the thick fog that rolls up from the sea every night, making a world the characters knew well in the daytime seen unfamiliar and haunted. In One Last Breath, it’s the overgrown Florida scrub and the wildlife (animal and human) that call it home. It’s the deep and mysterious freshwater springs that lure divers to their depths and then lull them into a false sense of safety.

Last, embrace symbolism and metaphor in your setting. In Dark and Shallow Lies, the town of La Cachette starts off as a lovely place, but as the evil that lies at the heart of the town starts to become more obvious, the white paint starts to peel and the wooden boardwalk begins to rot beneath their feet. Vines start to climb along the edges of the houses and pull at the planks. Pilings start to sink into the mud. The metaphorical decay at the heart of the town starts to be mirrored in the environment, and eventually the bayou exacts its revenge.

Thanks for coming with me on my tour of atmospheric American settings. I hope you'll be able to use some of these tips in your own writing. I can’t wait to see where you’ll take us!

One Last Breath by Ginny Myers Sain is published by Electric Monkey (£8.99)


Read more advice on writing setting in your fiction from author Una Mannion