The Importance of Setting in writing fiction By David Rocklin, Courtesy Writer’s Digest, Tn Odu, Phantom House Books, Nigeria

“All description is an opinion about the world.” — Anne Enright

In some books, you scarcely recall where the narrative took place. Others could have unfolded anywhere, at any time. Perhaps this was a purposeful decision by the author – universality, timelessness. But if the story is intended to be a product of its setting, how to render that setting in a living way? How do you take it from backdrop to character?

For me, historical fiction is no different than contemporary fiction in at least this way: I hope to glimpse my life. I may move through prehistoric caves, or walk the streets of Depression-era New York, or in the case of my novel, The Luminist, inhabit the neglected Ceylon estate of a colonial wife and the Tamil boy she draws into her obsessive pursuit of the first photographs. Wherever I am, I sift details of meals eaten in the upper and lower classes, clothes worn, slang uttered, how they slept and where they worked; I pin them to the prevailing forces of their world. Through those details, even fiction removed in time becomes immediate to me.

There are ways to uncover those details. I am drawn to old photographs, for example. Julia Margaret Cameron’s iconic portraits and her lesser known images of colonial Ceylon captivated me upon first encountering them, and they fueled my exploration of the themes that became the foundation of my book.

Writings (journals, newspapers, etc.) that are contemporaneous to the period, if available, can convey authentic voices and idioms. Old maps, their boundaries long since redrawn, nevertheless speak of vanished villages, dead rivers, or historic plagues. Biographies are wonderful tools for locating the threads of character and sociological/political backdrops from amongst the tangle of a finished life.

These are tools that can be used to do what is so difficult to do in creating your setting: resurrecting something that stopped existing before you started writing about it. The town, the house, the atmospherics of history, shift a little or a lot the moment your character begins to consider them.

Now, about the messy business of infusing place with character.

Imagine visiting someone you know well. Imagine sitting with them as you have a thousand times. Describe them. Now, tell yourself that they had a twin, who died tragically at an early age. You never knew that before. The narrative of your life with them has proceeded to this point without this information. But now you know.

Look at them again, and observe what has changed. What is different about the look in their eyes or the way they dress, or where they choose to live or what they do for work? Nothing. Everything. To render these differences, whether granular in detail or broadly stroked, is to make the character breathe.

Let’s apply this to setting. Find a room you’ve never seen. It has no meaning to you and holds nothing of your past life. You don’t know its contours, or how it looks on a cloudy morning. You can literally find one and occupy it, or find a picture and imagine yourself into it. Describe it. Tell the readers what we see. What we could touch, if only we were really there.

Now, describe the same room a second time. This time, give the room a story. This is where someone died. That chair was where a husband sat as his wife told him that she was leaving him. Out that window, a single mother watched a moving van pull up after losing the house to foreclosure.

What just happened? The room’s physical description changed, didn’t it? That’s not merely a bed. That’s not simply a street outside. The walls and their peeled paint have something akin to a voice. This setting isn’t just an edifice or a space anymore. It bears witness.
I think of Fitzgerald’s fictionalized Long Island, its eastern and western sides and the inlet between. DeLillo’s New York, violently reborn in the collapse of the twin towers. Hemingway’s sea, washing an old man away and back again, to a home that may no longer hold a place for him. I think of settings such as these and cannot help but know the characters that populate them.

Guest column by David Rocklin, author of THE LUMINIST (Oct. 2011,
Hawthorne Books), a debut Publishers Weekly called “beautifully written. Rocklin
grew up in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He lives in
California with his wife and children. Courtesy: Writer’s Digest |


the ABC’s on how to edit your work. Attempt a D.A.R.E review. A professional review for dummies and first time authors.

a D.A.R.E review is a primal form of a book review and simply means you Delete After Reading and Evaluating the manuscript (finished/unfinished).

The Review is done in three simple sweeps.

First SWEEP. The first sweep is the first read. During this sweep, it is paramount you get the general feel of the book.

DO NOT read for errors. DO NOT attempt to make any corrections during this sweep. Reading is all that is required.

Several Reviews have questionnaires attached to the review script to make it easier to sweep paragraphs, whole sections, and pages. If they are attached, answer them.

The basic questions that should be cruising through your mind during this sweep are:

Why you think this book/chapter/page/section will work/why it won’t work?

What makes it difficult to read/easy to read?

Is the story plausible/commendable/a sham?

IT IS IMPORTANT HERE TO NOTE: the fewer your words at this stage the more critical/direct/and unbiased your review will sound, which is constructive for the writer whose work is been reviewed, good or bad.

Second SWEEP. The second sweep is the second read. During this sweep, you are allowed to make changes following what software/editing tool you decide to use. You can also inculcate your own reading/editing strategy. You’re free to do as you wish. Read for syntax errors, spelling errors, and construction error; that is errors that you think rob a phrase or sentence of the intended or implied meaning.

The basic questions that should be cruising through your mind during this sweep are:

No one is that perfect, where are the bloody errors?!

Why can’t I understand a line? When and how did I get to this page?

What did he do wrong, why am I confused right about here?

IT IS IMPORTANT HERE TO NOTE: the more verbose/grandiose/explicit the words you use in this stage, the more constructive and easier it will be for the writer whose work is being reviewed to connect to your suggestions and the intended meaning of your review.

Last SWEEP. The third sweep is the final read. During this sweep you are allowed to read the story with your corrections to edit yourself and the reviewed writer. It is easier of the reviews and much simpler now. You are also allowed to check for disproportionate facts and figures, and changes in story content.

The basic questions that should be cruising through your mind during this sweep are:

Is he kidding? Did the writer just lie to me? But, the writer said a totally different name/number/subject/object/thing at the start of this episode?

I sound right/logical/funny/witty/smart/straight to the point/unbiased. What is making my review work?

On a scale of one to ten, do you think the featured author deserves to be a writer?

IT IS IMPORTANT HERE TO: SEND the Reviewed copy to its respectively Literary Agency and DELETE the document on your computer and in the recycle bin and the email through which it was sent immediately!!!

it is a standard practice, and the most valuable task you can do for the author.