From Authors to Authors: The Importance of Writing Great Setting

Characterisation, POV, plot, theme, conflict, sex. . . How many times have we heard these are what our books live or die by? Okay, maybe not sex. Or then again, maybe, depending on the type of book you’re writing. But writing great setting? No, not so much. A book’s setting is often the poor relation, left sitting in the corner when the big boys of theme, conflict, POV, blah, blah, blah, are quaffing champagne and having a whale of a time.

Including details of the setting can act like a highlighter pen, because it draws the reader’s attention and focus. Setting can ramp up a character’s feelings and emotions, whether of anxiety, sorrow, joy, excitement or any other. In short, it can help the reader experience what the character is experiencing.

Look at these two extract from my forthcoming book Connor & Ash, Barista Boys #3:

Ash. . . watched the staff as they rushed around laden down with trays piled up high with mouth-watering cakes, pastries and sandwiches. It was mid-morning, and the café was heaving. The queue at the counter never lessened, as soon as one customer was served another would join the line.

The place wasn’t merely busy, it was lively. The staff didn’t just dispense food and drink, they chatted, bantered, laughed and joked with each other as well as the customers. There was no air of going through the motions, doing what had to be done because at the end of the week, the fortnight or the month there was money in the bank. They took pride in their work. Ash could see it in the care lavished on an individual coffee, making each one just so.

Several minutes later, he turned into a side road lined with garages offering cut price MOTs and car repairs. Litter blew along the gutters, and the cracked paving stones were strewn with ground-out cigarette butts. Outside the greasy spoon café he stood for a moment, steadying himself for his monthly appointment with Bull before he pushed open the door and stepped inside, on the dot of 4.30pm.

In the first extract, the café setting is upbeat and vibrant, it’s a good place to be and this is shown by building the setting, by adding small detail: it’s busy, the baristas laugh and joke with the customer, they take pride in their work. Ash is in the café to be interviewed for a job, it’s a glimmer of light in his otherwise dark life. Working there would be a good thing, and experiencing the café makes him really want the job. Would he—and the reader—have those feelings if there was no sense of the café (in other words of the setting)? Unlikely.

In the second extract, the setting informs Ash’s feelings about his visit to a very different café. Unlike the first, this place is run-down and fly-blown—no artisan pastries and coffees to be had here. The location (rough, dirty, possibly dangerous) feeds into Ash’s nervousness. Would the reader have felt his nerves if this place had been more like the first? Again, probably not.

With setting, less is more. A hint here or a small detail there, not long and weighty paragraphs describing everything in minute detail.  Characters don’t just inhabit a setting, they react to it through their senses: the aroma of good coffee, vanilla and sweet caramel or the rancid smell of cheap cooking fat; hearing and seeing baristas laugh and joke with each other and the customers. Paying attention to setting provides a richer experience for both author and reader. After all, why add non-fat milk to your coffee when you can add cream?

About the Author

A E Ryecart writes mm romance/gay fiction. Filled with angst, high drama and emotional tension, she writes the books she likes to read. An avid people watcher, most of her writing takes place in a local café amidst the background hum of hissing coffee machines, where she can check out the other customers for character and story inspiration!

A born and bred Londoner, she may have moved to someplace more leafy but the city is still very much part of her DNA, which is why her books are set in and around present-day London, providing a thrilling, metropolitan backdrop to the main action.

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A pleasure to meet you! I’m Alina Popescu, an author, traveler, and hopeless coffee addict. I write urban fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, and sometimes even contemporary stories. A significant number of my books are LGBTQ fiction and romance.

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