Episode 115: Where you at?

On October 3, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the topic of when and where your story lives. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Where You At? The impact of Setting on story.


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • What is setting?
  • How does setting impact the story? A PESTEL analysis.
  • How do you decide where to put the story?
  • Can you write about a place you’ve never been?
Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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What is setting?

Setting is the place and time your in which your story occurs. It answers two key questions: when? And where? (literary terms link)

How is time determined?

  • Calendar — what actual day and actual year
  • Season — winter, fall, summer spring, football, the holidays, school in session or not
  • Clock — actual hour and actual minutes
  • Era — invoking the technology, social aspects, and politics of a certain time period (i.e. That 70’s Show, The Wonder Years, The Goldbergs 1980-something)
  • During a certain period of time — World War II, The Great Depression, Civil War
  • Character’s age or stage in life — middle school, high school, weddings, parenthood
  • Verb tense — past says it already happened, present tense it’s happening now somewhere

Backdrop setting — time is so irrelevant to the story that it’s difficult to tell exactly what time it actually happened; kid’s stories and fairytales have this. They must limit use of technology and avoid references to era-specific things (like record players, horse & buggy, or the monarchy). What would be more important? The lesson being taught of course.

Integral — the time/era of the setting has a direct impact on the plot. Transportation comes to mind, but also communication and media.

Segment 2

Love this idea from the page: Setting provides context for the characters’ actions. Not just the when and where, but the why and how they are bound to do something.

In business school, we use the PESTEL analysis to examine the industry. Let’s apply that here and see if it works for literature, shall we?

P is for politics. What are the political forces at work? In a story this could be as simple as the prince being pressured to choose a bride to the complex workings of a plot to overthrow the government. Many YA novels get political as a sixteen year-old girl becomes the only thing standing between the young prince and his father’s enemies. Political ‘time’ can add a specific mood to the piece. Consider books like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Westen Front which happen during war. Or Anna Karenina which happens during Russian Imperialism. Political eras, or very specific political events can create compelling time settings for a variety of stories.

E is for economics. What are the financial circumstances of the era? Is this story taking place in the suburbs? The inner city? The income and expenses of the characters creates either an imbalance that results in power or powerlessness, or it’s a negligible part of the environment. The economics of the relationships between people – who gets what from whom – are also about whether the exchanges are voluntary, begrudging, or advantageous. Economics is really about exchange and while we tend to think financial, the economics of a story are often part of the era and the drama. Think Gatsby, House of Sand and Fog, or The Sun Also Rises. Each story has a character whose own financial circumstances are at the forefront of their misery and those circumstances are entirely related to the era in which the book takes place.

S is for social. What is acceptable behavior in society? What is expected of our character as a member of the society? The constraints upon or release allowed also impact the story and are entirely driven by the era as well. Consider The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels. It’s about a young man returning home to die of AIDS in his family’s care after having lived a wild, free life in New York City where he was accepted for being gay. His life before getting sick, the way his family and hometown feel about him, the likelihood of dying from AIDS are all indicative of a specific era. The social circumstances of a story are almost entirely dependent on when and where it occurs.

Segment 3

I love this PESTEL analysis for setting specifically. I think it’s going to give our listeners a LOT to think about. Let’s finish it up.

T is for Technology. What gadgets, tools, or capabilities are present in the story? We think of this often in terms of science fiction: space travel, personal devices, cyborgs. But technology can also be the kind of communication available — payphones versus cellphones. And that technology can set limits to the story as well. If the character must wait for a letter to be delivered by footman to the object of one’s affection (as in Pride & Prejudice) then how does one show urgency? You deliver it yourself. The technology of the time can enable or hinder the plot and can provide you with the necessary hurdles your character needs to overcome. 

E (the second E) is for Environment. Literally the quality of the air, the availability of freshwater, that sort of thing. I liked a YA series that had a desert nation as its fantasy backdrop because the environment forced the technology and both were clues to the era. How has the environment been made habitable? Or has it? Is there a threat to the environment. Cormac McCarthy works this pretty hard in The Road. Not only are the economics of the environment hard, but the people, finding shelter, making oneself secure all are hard, too. Ann Patchett deals with the environment in State of Wonder where the earth slows its turn on its axis and the days get much longer in some places and shorter in others until it ceases to turn at all. The changes in the environment force social and economic changes as well and those are reported by the young girl narrator but without her really understanding them.

L is Legal and while Legal may not seem like a setting thing at first, it’s directly related to the time period because what the law did and did not allow matters. Consider stories of drivers drinking their beer in the car while driving, children working in factories — for that matter orphanages — or the possibility of arrest for something like drug use, abortion, or protesting. The threat of legal ramifications can tell us a lot about the setting — the when and where — and can also provide motivation for our characters, or rationale for why they do what they do.

Segment 4

So how do you decide? Janice Hardy’s Fiction University website equips us with these 10 questions to ask:

  1. Where are your favorite places? – what you love about it will come through your writing
  2. What mood or atmosphere are you trying to establish? – desolation, abandonment? Think wide-open-spaces or cold, dark places
  3. What settings are common to your genre? – small down mystery? Big city crime syndicate?
  4. What setting would enhance the conflict? – Alaska? Somewhere that’s hard to live, hard to survive?
  5. What are the critical elements of your setting? – like we need to be able to fly via commercial airlines, have to have access to internet, need some big gathering of some kind like a theater event or a football game
  6. Do you want a real or fictional setting? – if you can make it up that’s less constraining than using a real place; I used a golf course in Tucson in a recent scene and had to make sure the one I was using had been in business in 2000.
  7. Is it a small scale or large scale? What’s the scope of the story? This is why the standard NYC plot makes me crazy. If NYC doesn’t play a role and the story can be anywhere, why are you taking the shortcut of NYC?
  8. Do you want the place to be urban or rural? Again, this is about economics, technology, and environment.
  9. Does the protagonist know this place or not? Stranger in a strange land is a compelling story. A lot, a lot, of stories begin with someone new arriving in an already established place.
  10. Do you want to learn something new or use something you already know well?

And this goes to the last thing we can cover today:

Can you write about a place you’ve never been? Should you? How?

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