‘In children’s fiction there are many worlds that, once encountered, are never forgotten – Alice’s underworld, Pook’s Hill, Pooh Corner, Toad Hall and the Wild Wood, a secret garden in Yorkshire, a Kensington nursery where a Newfoundland dog is the nanny…’
Settings that have delighted children and adults alike. Places that we would know our way around if we were plonked down in the middle of them.
Settings that stay in our memory long after we’ve finished reading.
The Importance of Settings
Your story setting is like a second home for your reader. As they wander through your story, it should be so familiar to them that they feel as though they’re actually there.
Whether we’re enjoying a delicious fried breakfast with Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Great Hall or helping Rabbit sow his vegetable seeds in the One Hundred Acre Wood, the settings we know and love become very real.
Upon finishing Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, I had fallen in love with Little Weirwold. I hoped that the village actually existed. Sadly it is a place of pure fiction, but the description and the action were so powerful that it led me to believe that it could be real. I could picture myself in Tom’s house, with the fire in the hearth, looking out at the church and the little graveyard.
Settings can be that powerful.
So how can we, as children’s writers, create settings that come alive in our readers’ imaginations? How can we take the image in our own minds and put it effectively into words?
5 Tips to Create Sensational Settings
Creating a vivid, believable setting takes practise. You will alter and improve it as you write, particularly as you become immersed in your world on a daily basis. Use the tips below to create a place your readers will love.
1. Immerse Yourself in Fictional Places
As writers we must read a lot. Pick up your favourite children’s books and study the settings. How do the authors manage to make it seem vivid and real in your mind’s eye? What works well and why? How much detail do they use and is it necessary?
Make notes about the techniques the authors use to describe their settings. You can look back on these notes when creating your own and try out some of the literary techniques too. If they use similes well, could you try that? Is your descriptive vocabulary precise enough?
Once you’ve written a description of your setting, read back through it as if you were a reader or ask someone else to. Can they picture themselves there? If not, why not? Getting feedback on your work is always helpful, even if it’s only a paragraph or two.
2. Draw or Use a Map
If your setting is based on a real place, find a map of the local area and print it out. If you can enlarge it, that would be even better. Circle the key places that will/do feature in your story.
Pin it up on the wall around your writing space so that you can refer to it often. This will ensure consistency and accuracy when describing buildings or features in your book. Here is a copy of the map I’m using for my current WIP, pinned to the wall in the cabin. The great thing about this map is that it also shows where buildings stood during the time of the Great Plague in 1666, which is when part of my story is set.
You may be writing in a fantasy world or a completely fictional setting and that’s great too. A map is important here because it allows your creativity to flow. It may start off a little sparse but you can add to it as your world grows in your imagination.
It will probably go through several changes until you get to the place you can picture in your mind, but that’s good as it needs to be as accurate as possible.
3. Take a Field Trip
If your story is set in a real place, nothing beats a real trip to the setting to get even more details about the place you’re trying to describe.
You can then sketch or take photos of buildings to ensure accuracy and consistency. Pick out the big details, but also the small details too. Sit somewhere quietly and close your eyes. What can you hear? Do trains run past frequently or planes fly overhead? What kind of shops and other amenities are there?
Print out your pictures and add them to the wall next to your map. Here are a few of mine from my trip to Eyam last summer.
If you’re unable to get to the place where your story is set, Google Street View can be an enormous help. So if you’re based in London, but part of your story is set in New York, you can be there within a few clicks of a button.
4. Use Your Senses
Once you have your setting clearly mapped out and in your mind, it’s time to start writing about it. When your character is in an important setting in your story, you can make it come alive by using their senses.
For most people, a new place is explored by sight. It is the most obvious choice of sense to use. But to get a real sense of a place, you need to think about what your character can hear, touch and smell too. It’s these smaller details that can make a place so vivid in your reader’s imagination.
A great example of this is in Harry Potter when Harry has his first experience of Diagon Alley. JK Rowling uses sights and sounds to draw the reader in.
A low, soft hooting came from a dark shop with a sign saying Eeylops Owl Emporium – Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown and Snowy. Several boys of about Harry’s age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. ‘Look,’ Harry heard one of them say, ‘the new Nimbus Two Thousand – fastest ever!’
There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon…
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Don’t rely on sight alone, use your character’s other senses to add greater detail to the most important settings in your story.
5. Description through Action and Dialogue
A great skill that we can learn as authors is to describe a setting through action or dialogue. Readers like description, but they don’t always want huge chunks of it to wade through. They want action and adventure. We can introduce them to new places through the things that they do and the words that they say.
Using dialogue between two characters works well as they can discuss the setting they’re in, bringing about description as well as emotion. Without realising it, your reader is becoming more familiar with the world the characters are experiencing.
Action moves the plot forward and keeps the pages turning, but it’s also useful when describing a setting. Adding in snippets of description help the reader visualise both what is happening and where it’s taking place.
Suddenly he stopped. ‘We is here at last!’ he announced. He bent down and lifted Sophie from his pocket and put her on the ground. She was still in her nightie and her feet were bare. She shivered and stared around her at the swirling mists and ghostly vapours.
‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘We is in Dream Country,’ the BFG said.
The Sensational Setting Summary
So now you have the tips, it’s time to start creating that sensational setting for your story. As with everything in the writing world, you’re not going to get it right first time. But keep plugging away at your maps and diagrams and it will soon begin to take shape.
Use your senses when adding description too. We embrace the world around us using them all, so why should it be any different in your fictional world?
Create a setting that readers feel part of and they’ll follow your characters anywhere.
The reason that so many people love the Harry Potter books is because of JK Rowling’s attention to detail. The lessons, the food, the dormitories, Hogsmeade… the list could go on. But it’s true. By taking the time to get this right, Rowling has created a world that people are desperate to be part of.
Grown men and women still hope to get their Hogwarts letters on September 1st. Fans know which house they belong in. Universal Studios has a full-size Hogsmeade village, for goodness sake.
But all of it began in JK Rowling’s imagination.
Just like yours will.
Do you have any other tips for creating a sensational setting? Which settings are your favourite and why? Drop a comment in the box below and let’s discuss!
You might wish to create a profile for your settings, much like writers do for characters. Here is one for the Forbidden Forest on Pottermore.