Friday Writing Info, Friday Reads, and a Friday Contest

Every Friday during my residency I'll be posting writing info and prompts, asking you for your Friday reads, and offering up a cool contest.

Today's topic is setting, and for the math fans among you, I'll offer up an equation. Hey, even if you aren't a fan of math, the equation is an easy way to get a handle on presenting your setting in a way that draws the reader in and helps them experience the environment right along with your character.

 Setting = time + place + context

Let’s say the time is the future.

The place is Canada and the Arctic.

Time and place remain the same in the following scenarios, but context makes all the difference.

Option A: future Canada & the Arctic after an apocalypse where the continents have shifted and Canada, the Arctic, Greenland and Northern Russia are all one huge, frozen, flat land mass. Giant trucks that run off hydrogen are the main mode of transportation. Ruined cities dot the landscape at distant intervals.

Option B: future Canada & the Arctic after an apocalypse. Global warming has led to the northern march of forests and plants not native to the area. The ice shelf has eroded. The ocean has receded. Animals are the main mode of transportation.

Even though time and place are exactly the same in these two scenarios, the settings are completely different. See what I mean about context?

When describing your setting remember a few helpful points. 

1. Readers want concrete details, not abstraction. Be specific!

• Don’t write: “You sure these’ll work?” Ben asks as I shake two pills into his hand. We’re in the clinic that was mostly destroyed when the Reavers attacked.

• Do write: “You sure these’ll work?” Ben asks as I shake two pills into his hand. We’re in a surgical room in the clinic—the one with the light still intact and the least amount of damage. That isn’t saying much given that only half the examining table still stands and the south wall is a crumbling ruin of concrete blocks and mortar.

• Don’t write: The houses were clumped at the bottom of the mountain. Tall trees rose behind them.

• Do write: Brand new houses huddled at the base of the mountain, their front yards muddy and dark, waiting for the builder to lay the contractually specified sod. The triangular tips of massive evergreens rose behind them.

2. Readers don’t want to get bogged down by the details of the setting but they do need to orient themselves.

• What are the limits of the POV (point-of-view) character’s location? A room? A building? A road? A town? What can the POV character see, smell, touch in the immediate vicinity? Focus on what the POV character can realistically experience at any given moment.

• Small details can reveal a great deal: for example, the murmur of dozens of voices, the dull thud of full glasses hitting a hard surface, too loud laughter, A sharp crack followed by the grinding roll of a ball on felt, followed by a thud and a man’s voice saying, “Pay up.”

Are you oriented? Do you have an idea of where we are?

3. Sense perceptions vary greatly depending on male vs female, cultural experiences, geography, age of POV character, supernatural/paranormal attributes of character, etc.

For example: one person may notice that another person is wearing a floral scent; she may even note what the exact floral scent is. Another person might just note that the woman smells good and he wouldn’t mind burying his nose in her neck and taking a sniff

Another example: a human might note a faint off smell while a werewolf would be appalled by the garbage stink.

4. Use all the senses to make the setting as vivid as possible.

5. Focus on setting elements that are critical to the plot. 

***Exercise: The protagonist of your novel is having their first encounter with the antagonist. Describe the setting. Does it matter where they meet? Does the setting play a role in how the scene plays out? If it doesn’t, is this scene set in the right place? 

6. Reveal setting in layers.

What would the POV character notice first? Is it the mountain range in the distance? Or is it the clumps of berries growing by the side of the road. If the POV character is starving, it would probably be the berries. If the character must make it to the castle at the top of the mountain before nightfall, she'd probably notice the mountains first.

7. Reveal setting according to POV character’s level of experience, backstory and age.

• A six year old boy in a fancy dining room probably wouldn’t notice Persian carpets and Royal Doulton China, but he might notice that the carpet looked soft enough to lie down and sleep on and the plates were so delicate he was scared to touch them.

• A windswept coastline would look different to a mermaid than it does to a fisherman.

8. Reveal setting according to the characters mood.

• A heroine who is shifting into a wolf for the first time, all alone in the dark woods at midnight, frightened and lost would see those woods very differently than a heroine who has shifted many times before and is in the woods at midnight for a thrilling run with her pack.


Thinking of submitting your work to me for review? Contact information and details are here.


And now for the contest!


One lucky winner will receive this awesome prize pack from New York Times Bestseller Morgan Rhodes! Prize pack includes a signed copy of A Book of Spirits and Thieves, a mini poster, a Falling Kingdoms pen, and two cool buttons. Morgan Rhodes writes fantasy stories that have been described as Game of Thrones for teens.


1. To enter, just leave a question or the title of your Friday Read or a sample paragraph of your setting or a general comment in the Comments section. 

2. You must live in Toronto to win this contest. 

3. You must provide a valid e-mail address so you can be contacted if you win a prize, and you must be able to come to a TPL branch to pick up your prize (see privacy statement below for more information).

4. One entry per person per Contest - you can leave more than one comment, but only your first comment will count as a contest entry. 

5. Contest ends Thursday October 1, 2015 at 11:59 pm. 

6. Winner will be announced on the following Friday.

Personal information on this form is collected under the authority of the Public Libraries Act, s.20 (a) and (d) and will be used to administer the Library's TPL Teens contest. Questions about the collection or management of personal information should be directed to library manager Jayne Delbeek-Eksteins- 416-396-8858.