Scrambled Thoughts About “The Setting”

Author Terry Sanville

Today we have some words of wisdom from author Terry Sanville on crafting the perfect setting for our stories. Take it away, Terry!

A story’s setting has multiple dimensions. There’re the obvious physical elements – On a hot afternoon, Terry stared at his MacBook’s screen, in his stifling man-cave in an ageing Fleetwood doublewide, and wondered why the heck he’d agreed to write that article. The more mundane the physical setting, the fewer words needed to describe it; the more unique the physical setting, the more interest it will have to the reader and the more words needed. But physical elements are only part of it.

Temporal elements also need to be understood. It’s July 4th, 2020, and Terry’s drunk as a skunk. This direct way of establishing the time frame of your story can sometimes work. But it often feels clumsy and trite. Using other ways to “time stamp” your tale, while not as precise, can get the idea across. The battery of Terry’s smart phone died, leaving him stranded, sixty miles into the desert from Blythe, with no water and a gasless car with no GPS. In this example, referencing smart phones and GPS lets the reader know that the story is contemporary.  

Time stamping is important since our stories live beyond the present. And it’s equally important for historical stories to be time stamped, using elements widely associated with that particular era.  After handing Jill his “make love not war” sign, Terry removed the garland of flowers from his long hair and stepped toward the line of Ohio National Guardsmen.

And then there are the socio-political elements that should be understood. Does the story take place during wartime?  During a pandemic? A great depression?  Other things that significantly affect the worldviews and behavior of your characters? 

A story’s setting can be as strong and essential as the sea in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” or as static and known as in the film “My Dinner With Andre.”  For Hemingway, the sea acts as another character, central to the plot. For “My Dinner” the setting is simply a backdrop for intense dialogue between characters, more like a stage play (which it originally was) than anything else. 

Where to set your story may depend on the type of story. While the setting can remain relatively static, it can add to the atmosphere and tone of the tale. For example, we might think about writing a noir piece, set on the fog-shrouded docks of San Francisco, where the plot involves drug dealers, murders and a variety of thugs. Sanville crept along the fog-shrouded alley and ducked behind an overflowing dumpster. A black Escalade with tinted windows pulled up, a rear door snapped open and a body shoved out – the dead man, Nicky, his informant. But watch out for falling into the old cliché trap. Be creative and find a setting that amplifies the story’s mood and emotions.

On the other hand, sometimes choosing a setting that is in contrast with the mood of the story can heighten tension. How many horror or crime movies have been filmed in amusement parks or county fairs where people are laughing and screaming with joy while some dastardly deed is taking place. The Ferris wheel spun in the Lubbock night then slowed to a stop. Laughter and whoops from the riders merged with the midway’s crowd noise. But in the uppermost car, Terri fought for her life.

Sometimes there’s no question where to set the story. In Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” the very essence of the tale requires it to be set at sea.  And I’m sure his experience with fishing off the coast of Havana helped. But other times, we have this idea for a story that is not innately tied to a particular location. Now we have the freedom (and the challenge) to choose.

I wrote a story titled “Ledges” about missed expectations and unbridled ambition: a wife disappointed with the status quo; a husband content with their life together. I decided to use the sandstone monoliths at Utah’s Zion National Park as a metaphor for this situation – a ledge short of the summit being a disappointment for the wife; a ledge being good enough to enjoy the view for the husband.

Sometimes, a story will come out of undirected research of a particular place. I once studied a group of islands (I like islands) off the east coast of Africa. The history of one particular island involved multiple European occupations, volcanoes, the Arab slave trade, and the spice trade with India and Japan, all during the 15th and 16th centuries. The story idea formed out of these historical and physical elements – an affair between two lesbian lovers fleeing from Arab slavers to a childhood hideout on the side of rumbling Mt. Karthala. Didn’t they make a cheesy film like that in the ’50s (all except the lesbian part)?

Once you’ve decided on a setting, or the story dictates a setting, how should it be integrated into the story? Aye, there’s the rub, says the bard. Older style novels, memoirs, and short stories often spent multiple paragraphs describing the world through which the characters move. But more contemporary fiction and creative non-fiction integrate the setting into action sequences involving the characters. The examples I’ve provided above have tried to achieve this objective. 

But the more unique the setting, the more information the reader will need.  I think science fiction stories involving other worlds or a significantly altered Earth pose a real challenge since the writer can’t depend on the reader’s common knowledge to fill in the gaps. This feature heightens the challenge of how to keep action moving without delaying it with burdensome description, sometimes called “world building.” The integration process takes a lot of practice.

But aren’t novel-length pieces a different challenge than writing a short piece? You bet.  There may be places in a novel to slow the pace and relax into a more descriptive mode.  However, maintaining tension throughout is still an essential element of contemporary writing.  So narrative side trips, e.g. precisely describing the furniture in a room and the paintings on the walls, shouldn’t be too long – even though many of us enjoy the heck out of writing them. 

The setting is not just an obvious story element that follows the plot. It can be a unique and enriching feature that the author can play with and use to amplify the story’s impact.  Some concluding tips:

  • Do your research. 
  • Use specific details that readers can imagine.  
  • Create an “atmosphere” that can either contrast with or support the plot.
  • Consider using the setting as a character.
  • Describe only important elements and avoid slowing the pace.
  • Use all senses. 
  • Use the setting as part of the story’s tension elements.

Thank you, Terry, for some very enlightening and useful information on crafting settings for our stories, both short and long. Terry’s first novel, Face-to-Face, is now out. You’ll find it on, a truly engrossing read, volume #1 of Touchables: A Dystopian Trilogy. Check it out!

Get Terry’s Book!

Write Over the Hump

Here’s a sentence to start you off that should get your creativity rolling along. There are lots of places this one can take you. Set that timer for 15 or 20 minutes and start writing! Have fun!

We only had two ghosts in our house, so everyone thought we were poor.

Symbols and Writing

At one morning session of my Write It Right Writing Class a few years ago, we got into an interesting discussion about symbols and the role they play in our stories. One of the students questioned the need for symbols at all, citing that she had never understood what teachers were talking about when she was in English class. Then she added that she never agreed with their interpretation of what the symbols in particular pieces of literature mean, anyway. She didn’t see any reason to mine her writing for possible symbols (See: Lesson #2 in Write It Right, Vol.1: Character, Setting, Story), and was totally resistant to the proposed exercise. 

So, we talked about symbols and how they help to deepen our stories, weave inextricable connections, and clarify the underlying meaning to our readers. 

Symbols, basically, are everywhere in our lives. One example a student brought up is the wedding ring, an easily identifiable symbol of love, devotion and commitment. We also talked about the cross, used by today’s Christian society as a symbol of ultimate sacrifice: the giving one’s life for another. 

Probably the best known symbol (though we rarely look at it as a symbol) is Sex. It’s the symbol of physical perfection and allure; the symbol of being desirable; the symbol, if you will, of immortality through procreation. Advertisers use scantily-clad sex symbols of both genders to hawk cars, mouthwash, books, magazines, food, clothing, motorboats, vacation retreats—you name it, sex is part of the ads. Because sex sells.

From the time man began to walk upright, long before written records existed, symbols were our most effective form of communication. The caves in both Lascaux and Chauvet, France, are filled with symbolic pictures of the story of the inhabitants’ lives. They still speak to us even thousands of years later. 

Symbols are part and parcel of who we are as human beings. They touch upon the universal themes of life and impart a deeper understanding of what if means to be alive and human. When we write from our inner truth, from our subconscious mind, symbols will pepper our writing. We can’t help it; it’s how we are made, how we best communicate beneath the words and the syntax and the spelling. 

When we learn to analyze our writing (after the fact, during the editing process) for symbols, we can then use those symbols during the rewrite phase to strengthen those connections where needed, and add a symbolic thread where it might be missing. Since the symbols are already there, anyway, why not use them to best advantage, to communicate fully with our audience?

Being aware of our symbols and how they interweave through our stories helps us to tell more vital and compelling tales. Symbols lift our writing from the ordinary closer to the extraordinary. They help make our writing unforgettable. And isn’t that what we want, as writers?

A quill pen: the symbol of a writer’s immortality…

A Journey Through My Right Brain To My Writer’s Voice

Author/Poet Debra Davis Hinkle

*Right Brain – …associated with creative thought and…

I started writing in 2004 and almost ten years later, I was still struggling with my writer’s voice.

Was I a writer, a poet? If I was an author, did I only write creative non-fiction about my childhood? If I was a poet, why did my poems sound like my prose? 

Why couldn’t I write about my favorite thing, cats? That was my biggest question and I needed an answer. I didn’t know that the answer would lead to other questions being answered, too.

I decided to study the writing used in cat books. I gambled and choose one immensely popular cat book series. I spent a winter reading Warrior cat books, the first four series:  The Prophecies Begin, The New Prophecy, Power of Three, and Omen of the Star, twenty-four books. 

That winter a dear friend, Stephanie, asked, “Debra, you do know those are children’s books?” 

“Yes, I’m using them to help me find my writer’s voice, especially my ‘cat voice’.” I still haven’t admitted to my friend that I read more than thirty of those books and just how much I enjoyed them. That’s my secret.

Long story, short: I took the books in on an easy, fun, heartwarming level, and a couple of years later I had my voice and the voice of my feral and domestic cats. I knew how they spoke to each other and to me.

I also figured out that I can write in different genres, but that I prefer creative non-fiction. My cat writing is done mostly via narrative poetry. I have a cookbook percolating, too. I might even finish that book on my childhood. Who knows? I can write whatever I want.

My latest right-brain publication is a collaboration with poet Shirley Radcliff Bruton:

pastedGraphic.png Available on Amazon

Debra’s published books:

This ‘n That Poetry, with Shirley Radcliff Bruton.

Tales from a Rocky Coast, Volume 1, an anthology with three other authors.

Tears to Laughter, Embracing the Future Without Forgetting the Past, with Jim Leonard.

Debra’s books due out in 2020 – 2021: Oodles of Blog Post Ideas; Meow Poetry, 1 – 3


Thank you, Debra, for a very interesting look at how you discovered your writing voice. It’s fascinating to see where/how writers do discover their own uniqueness. And it’s been amazing watching you grow as a writer! I hope all who read this learn something about the unexpected places one can find one’s true voice.

Write Over the Hump

Today we’ll delve a bit inside ourselves, since all our writing incorporates pieces of ourselves in it, even if it’s speculative, fantasy, or sci-fi. The more we can access what lies deep within, the better our writing will be.

So, set your timer for 10, 15 or 20 minutes and start writing about friendship, and what it means to you.

How To Train A Human

You Put What In My Bowl?

Food. It’s the most important item in the universe. Never doubt that for a moment.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that humans never understand the importance of food. They will fuss over what they consider to be the best, most nutritious offering for you, without giving any consideration to your own delicate palate. They will certainly never think to ask you what brand or flavor you want. Or like. As if you’re totally dependent on them, and are willing to accept that they know better than you do.

I cannot say this often enough: You are in charge! Humans exist solely to do your bidding. You are the master, and it’s your duty to make sure your human (or humans, depending on how many you allow to live in your house) understands that. And adheres to your rules.

This is not an easy task to accomplish, given the human penchant for stubbornness; there are two parts to it, and both are equally vital to your happiness and survival.

First, Step One: you need to find the type/brand/flavor of food that you like best. This will take some discipline on your part, and maybe a little starving at the outset, but humans are very malleable about this. They truly want you to have the best, they just don’t know what it is. They are dependent on such things as labels, TV and magazine ads, and advice from other humans (friends who serve cats and those incredibly horrendous humans called veterinarians—shudder!) and really do think they are doing what is right.

But what is right is what you want, so put your paw down and don’t give them any leeway. If what they give you is not perfect, refuse to eat it. Period. Not one bite. You may go hungry for a couple of days, but your human will go crazy with worry and will buy out every brand in the store to find just the right one, despite what anyone else has recommended.

 The specter of starvation beats out advice every time.

Just hold on, keep control of your claws, stick your nose in the air, walk away from that bowl, and sooner than you think you will have a full bowl of whatever makes you purr. For example, it took me only three days of walking away, unfed, before my human realized I will only eat Purina Cat Chow: Original Flavor. Now I get to glory in my meals every day.

Step Two of the mealtime process is training your human to feed you at appropriate hours. Don’t let the fact that they like to sleep until the sun at least has peeked over the horizon turn you from your training duties. Forget the clock. Forget that they “have” to go to work/a movie/shopping/dinner/sleep/whatever. You are the king, the queen; you rule the roost.

So get in their face when your internal clock tells you your bowl needs filling. Knead their flesh with claws partially extended. Give them unending annoyed meows. Resort to nipping/biting if you must. Knock items off dressers/desks/tables. Anything to get their attention.

Step Two will take a bit longer than Step One before it sinks in the dense human brain—feeding time is on your schedule, not theirs. But perseverance on your part—and who is more focused than a cat?—will soon train your human to feed you exactly what you want, exactly when you want it, every time.

And if they backslide? Well, you know what to do… sharpen those claws, oil up those vocal cords, go on a hunger strike. They’ll be back in line before you know it.

Happy eating!

Write Over the Hump

Here’s a fun opening phrase to start off your Hump Day! It should give you plenty to think and write about. Set that timer and get to work, letting those words flow…

The ball bounced three times before it….

The Scoop on Sub-Plotting

Today, we have words of wisdom on the value of, and how to insert, subplots into your stories, from Sue McGinty, acclaimed author of the Bella Kowalski mystery series. Her Q&A format leaves no stone overturned when it comes to subplots!

Author Sue McGinty

Q. Sue, as a mystery writer myself, I am often intrigued by subplots other authors create.  What inspires you to create the subplots in your five Bella Kowalski mysteries?

A. As with the main plot, almost anything is grist for the mill: a snippet of dialog overheard in a coffee shop, a blurb in the newspaper or seen on social media or  TV. When you’re a writer your antenna is always up, alert for material. For example, a TV news conference after a brutal murder in a major city supplied me with dandy subplot involving a police commissioner and a Mafia figure for “Murder in a Safe Haven,” my fourth Bella mystery.  

Q. What’s your definition of a successful subplot? 

A. Again, like the main plot, a subplot does its job if it effects change and/or growth in the chief protagonist and perhaps a minor character as well. In the first Bella Book, “Murder in Los Lobos,” Bella takes her teenage nephew to raise and becomes a more compassionate person for helping Chris through some hairy teenage angst, including girlfriend problems and his choice of a career.  

Q. What else should your subplot provide?

A. It enriches your narrative and provides another dimension to the story. It can also provide unexpected connections, as when in “Murder in a Safe Haven” Bella discovers an unknown—and unwelcome—family connection. Novels are about connections after all, and that’s why we love them so much. In real life we have all kinds of loose ends; in a satisfying novel order is restored.

Q. How do you create a subplot?”

A. Okay, here’s an example of my thought process. Today, I’m writing this blog while cooking soup on the stove because it’s raining. At the same time I’m worried about the rain standing on the flat roof of my garage, and I’m mentally packing for a trip later this week. In other words, I’m mentally and physically multitasking. If the pot with the soup burned dry and set fire to the kitchen, I might meet a handsome fireman who could become the love of my life. Voila! Subplot 1.

Or the garage roof might fall in on my car and I might cross paths with a shady used car salesman who murdered his wife. Voila! Subplot 2. 

Or I might forget my passport, miss my flight and become involved in an international intrigue because I had to take another flight on another day. Voila! Subplot 3. 

Q. After you have the subplot, what comes next?

The next step is developing characters to inhabit it: the handsome fireman, the shady used car salesman, the Russian or middle-eastern spy with a bomb in his briefcase. Besides the characters, I have to think about their POV. Since my main narrative is usually written in first person point of view, which is limited, I often use third person to widen the scope of the story. But you can be sure, at least in my stories, the subplot (or plots) and the main plot will converge at some point before the story plays out. The plots don’t have to converge but I enjoy stories where they do. Again, it’s all about making connections. 

Q. Can you provide a checklist for developing a subplot?

A. Who is the main character in the subplot? In the fifth book in the series, “Murder at Smugglers’ Cove, Bella is a part-time Uber driver who meets a British midwife, Mrs. Willibanks, a Jane Marple-like character who become an important person in her life.  

Then I have to decide:

B. What is his/her relationship with the protagonist?

C. What inciting incident introduces the subplot?

D. Where do the plots converge?

E. Do the plots (and their characters) share an ending, or do they go their separate ways? 

Q. Can you have too many subplots?

A. Personally, I think if you have more than one or two the story becomes too complex for the average reader to follow. My goal is to provide enjoyment for readers, not give them headaches. 

Q. What if your subplot is too long?

A. You can always divide it into chunks and drop them in at strategic spots. I’ve always found this fairly easy to do. If the main plot is heavy, I strive to provide a lighter note in the subplot and I love to include animals. The fifth book in the Bella series, “Murder at Smuggler’s Cove” features a great Dane named Romeo who is very amorous.

Q. Tell us about your latest published book.

My newest book, “The Sojourner Chronicles,” is quite a departure from the Bella series. In fact, it’s not even a mystery, but could best be described as historical fiction set in 1943 in Detroit. The protagonist, thirteen-year-old protagonist Sara Grace LeBeau whose mother has died, is sent off to live with a great-aunt she’s never met when her reporter father goes off to cover the war in Europe. While not a mystery per se, the story has an element of mystery. Sara Grace soon discovers that her great-aunt has something to hide, something buried in the woman’s mysterious past. 

Q,  So if the protagonist is only 13, is this a young adult story?

Not really, though it could certainly be read by teens. I originally wrote it as a young adult book, but Jay Asher, author of “Thirteen Reasons Why” pointed out that it’s an adult book with a teenage protagonist, similar to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Q, Does it have a subplot?

Not in the strict sense, but it does have an epilog where the reader sees Sara Grace as an adult and discovers how her childhood influenced her life choices. 

Q, Will there be more Bella Kowalski mysteries?

Definitely at least one more, but my current work WIP is an historical thriller “Murder at Area 51” that takes place in 1963. I became intrigued by Area 51 in the late 1980s when I worked for Lockheed and discovered accidentally that they did secret work for the Nevada military base.

Thank you, Sue, for so much valuable information on Subplots. It’s been a pleasure to host you today!

About Sue: Sue McGinty escaped Los Angeles on  June 17, 1994, the same day OJ Simpson took his infamous ride. Unlike OJ, Sue had a destination in mind: the Central Coast hamlet of Los Osos. Her goal: writing fiction, a whole different mindset than writing technical courses for McGraw-Hill.

She made the most of her newly-found time, publishing five Central Coast mysteries: “Murder in Los Lobos,” “Murder at Cuyamaca Beach,” “Murder in Mariposa Bay”, “Murder in a Safe Haven”, and “Murder at Smuggler’s Cove.” Her current work, an historical fiction coming-of-age story, “The Sojourner Chronicles” takes place in Detroit during WWII. 

Contact Sue at; or on Facebook: Sue McGinty