Help with setting

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    Philippa East

    Hello everyone,

    I wonder if you can help me with an element of my novel… SETTING (arg!!)

    As part of the editing process, I am trying to develop a deeper sense of place in my story. The novel is set in a mid-sized East Midlands town, with various geographical features (such as a canal) which serve scenes in the story.

    Beyond that, the town I’ve so far described is pretty non-specific. I may make it a real place, or may make it fictional, depending on requirements.
    Either way, as part of the editing process, I want to develop the “sense of place” on the page so that it adds further layers to the story, and complements the characters and themes.

    The pitch of the book is:

    “A missing child is found alive seven years after her abduction. But what if the family she returns home to aren’t as innocent as they seem?”

    So I am trying to get to grips with the question: what “kind” of place would best serve this story? What kind of atmosphere do I want to create to fit?


    So here’s where I pick you guys’ brains! I’d really appreciate any thoughts or suggestions of what qualities of place you think might provide a good backdrop for this kind of story. Let me know if you need more info about the characters, themes or plot…

    Thank-you so much for any brainstorming you can help me with.


    Lincoln covers most of the things on the list, I think, plus students and being hilly.

    What are the family like?

    Alan Rain

    Hi Philippa,

    The tension in the child / parent relationship could be enhanced by creating a similar displacement in the setting.

    For example, an ugly estate next to a historic castle, or by contrasting the conditions: a pretty village suffering some extreme weather, like flooding / gales.
    Similarly, have poor people in an affluent area.
    (For me, personally, I have no interest in reading about the wealthy/trendy types favoured by some novelists).

    I used this strategy in my own novel where the supernatural occurs in bright, sunny weather on a bustling dockside.

    If you’re doing description, perhaps focus on details as much as the whole?
    Good luck.

    Tony Lyttle

    You could have an industrial ‘dirty old town’ with back-to-back terraced housing where the kids still play in the streets, ancient pubs, pawn shops and run down motor repair lots and a ‘new’ posh housing estate with a children’s’ playground and the area by the canal nicely landscaped, built on the site of an old factory that went out of business. Maybe the locals don’t fully rust the incomers.


    How about a cute market town? Bustling with people going about their trivial day to day activities. It will be in stark contrast to the traumas the abducted child has to process. The family has stayed in the same place the whole time, and when the child comes back she recognises and remembers things from before her abduction. Things are the same but everything has changed – kind of thing.


    Lincoln would make an awesome setting! It has the historic beauty, and university ‘affluence’ but also the mid/north deprivation. I would think, being as you are looking at family secrets, and being as the rich, chic family with secrets is a trope probably too predictable… I like the reflection you could build from a very historic setting – history and mystery etc. And that setting could perhaps have the quiet/semi abandoned atmosphere of many historic settings where half the houses are second homes empty most of the year, or perhaps a place buzzing with university students/staff – that balance of tradition and change.

    I love the pitch by the way!

    Andrew Wille

    Philippa: Something that makes setting interesting is its ability to surprise. I’m thinking of JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, set in a quaint and fairly well-off Cotswold town that in fact has a lot of socioeconomic problems hiding beneath the surface – poverty, drug abuse. That tension within the setting informs much of the conflict in the plot.

    Specific can be good – but nonspecific and made up can also be good! Bedding something in a real location gives the writing a quality of verity, and also deliver a certain payoff in how it honours and represents life in a specific town or region. There is an element of local colour. I have recently been reading Angela Marsons and I get a buzz from the way in which her crime stories bring to life, e.g., the dual carriageway at the end of my mom’s road! But somewhere made up can still achieve much of the same while still giving you freedom, e.g., from getting too worried about getting the representation of a place ‘right’ – we can end up stuck in a trap of literalness. Sometimes, too, very specific locations can seem to narrow the appeal rather than expand them – I think there is a real trick in being able to make the specific universal.


    Personally unless it’s sci-fi I prefer quaint, pretty and historic; something a little like Lyra’s Oxford in Philip Pullman’s books. I love geography; rivers, canals, trees, paths, places that go somewhere and places that separate, forgotten parts of the city are all good stuff that I find can augment the sense of place; think “Bodies of Water” by V.H.Leslie. I like there to be enough physical details so that the setting can embody even the subtlest moods.

    What is the genre and the general plot?

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 7 months ago by Jonathan.

    So…I live in an East Midlands town. With a university, a canal, a market, wealthy hillside houses, poorer terraces town centre and large housing estates springing up on the outskirts. So if you need to run any specifics past anyone, let me know!

    But…for a story of abduction and return, perhaps it doesn’t matter which of the settings you pick. You could stay with an ‘ordinary’ home hiding nasty secrets behind closed doors. Or you could go with Andrew’s (?) suggestion of something more upmarket, where the family’s appearance/persona/way of life are at odds with the experience of abduction.

    Why do you feel you need to deepen the sense of place? What role does it have within the story? Is it to trigger memories of the past, for example (in which case, how have things changed in those 7 years?) or simply to be experienced in the character’s return? Perhaps when you know why you’re using that setting, it’ll help you know how deeply – if at all – you need to go…

    Personally, I find it harder to write a place I know than make it up from scratch!!


    I personally like the idea of the nice middle-class town where once you scratch the varnish you start seeing the cracks and that not is all at it seems and not to trust a book by its cover (so to speak). After that I think it’s a question of describing the environment through the eyes and the emotions of the POVs. For example how would they describe the local market if they are feeling depressed and isolated or what kind of details would they pick up if they were feeling hopeful.

    I hope that makes sense and it helps.

    Philippa East

    Thanks guys, and sorry for my slow reply (I am currently on a canal boat!)

    These are all extremely helpful ideas, great brainstorming. I am going to take some time to digest it all and see what speaks to me.

    I do like the idea of a fairly “quaint” or “middle class pretty” town which contrasts with the trauma of abduction. Also the theme (which runs through the book) of a place looking prettier on the outside than it is on the inside.

    I originally planned to base the story in Grantham, but when I visited and walked round the town the other day, it was a lot less “pretty” than I had recollected, and even the locals described is as “a bit of a “sh*t hole”. So I’m not sure that the “real” Grantham would serve my story that well, despite having certain geographic features I need.

    Squidge, do you mind if I ask where you live (feel free to DM me)?

    But maybe Lincoln yes…

    Good points too, Andrew, about the pros and cons of real vs fictional, specific and universal.

    Deepening the sense of place is one of the edits Sarah has asked me to work on. Really, it’s (just) to give the book a greater sense of being rooted and grounded – you know, so that when you read the story, you feel completely immersed in the story-world, rather than feeling an author has cobbled this tale together from thin air (erm). In that regard, I could use any kind of place… However, I think makes sense to have an atmosphere that works with the plot and themes of the story. As Jonathan so perfectly puts it: having “enough physical details so that the setting can embody even the subtlest moods.”

    So… I think probably Grantham is out and I need to find a new template.


    I’m in Loughborough – I wouldn’t call it quaint or pretty…like any town, there are bits like that, but not in the town centre. I suppose it depends on where most of the action happens…

    Not sure where you’re based, Philippa, but happy to show you round if you want to see it!

    Alan Rain

    If you do go for ‘middle class pretty’ then Oundle is a candidate, and it’s also quaint. It’s not far from Lincolnshire.
    (It’s on the river Nene, so you could sail to it on your barge.) 🙂

    Philippa East

    Thanks guys. That’s really helpful.

    I’m leaning more towards going with a fictional place, although based on a real location to help me be consistent with geographical details. For me, I think it’s becoming clear that there is a particular kind of place I envisage as the setting for this particular story.

    Trying to shoehorn my story into a real place that doesn’t have the right atmosphere has been literally giving me a headache! So I might devise a town that is a bit of a fudge of a number of Lincolnshire places and see if I can make that work…

    Thanks again for all your help. Your brainstorming has really helped bring my ideas together. I guess I’ll try and think more about setting at the outset for my future projects!


    Two bits of advice ‘freed’ me up wrt location, because I usually start with somewhere I know then make adjustments as necessary. Reading a disclaimer along the lines of “geographical liberties have been taken” I much appreciated.
    Also, Eimear McBride said when she wrote of Camden, she did it from a 5 year old memory of the place and never consulted Google.

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