How to Write Realistic Settings

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
— Virginia Woolf

Fiction writers and screenwriters set their scripts in realistic places. San Francisco, New York City and Chicago are popular. These settings make their content more vibrant and authentic. The target audience has either been to the city, lives within the city, or now wants to travel to it. Likewise, using a realistic place helps to define your fictional setting. Readers or viewers can envision the characters within the story. The setting is developed and larger than life, whereas a non-realistic place lacks these qualities. If you want to use a realistic setting, here are the best tips on how to do it.

Use Google Maps. You have to know what your city looks like. Is there a grocery store on Madison Street or an elementary school on Green Street? You can’t intersect Johnson Avenue and Colby Court if they do not intersect in real life. Those that live in the town will know that these streets are on opposite sides of town from one another. Is there high traffic or low traffic—and when? Know which streets get jammed at rush hour and which streets your character can take to get home faster. Which towns are located with a 5 or 10-mile radius of your city? These are all authentic details that will stand out to your readers if they are incorrect. If you nail the facts, you have won your reader’s trust. If you miss the facts or skip the research — your credibility may take a hit.

Visit the location. Does your story take place in Miami or Dallas? Take a vacation to these cities. Let your senses take over as you soak in the culture. Constantly observe your setting. What does it smell like? Is there a homeless man that sits in the same spot every day? Describe the buildings, the residents, and the parks. Try to put yourself anywhere that your character may go. If your character is a police officer, ask local law enforcement if you can go for a ride along. Or, ask for an interview about their daily routine. Professionals are usually very willing to work with writers, especially if they know it’s for a story. If you’re writing a historical novel, go to libraries and bookstores within the city. Take the opportunity to look up historical photos and documents, photocopying them if you’re permitted to do so.

Describe your settings. Usually, paragraphs of description doesn’t work well in fiction. Rather, have your character describe what they are experiencing as they go throughout a setting. You can make this easier by placing yourself in different locations throughout your city. Let your senses help you describe the setting. If your character has to go to the doctor, what do they see or feel while in the waiting room? If they are in the park, take your reader through what the character experiences as they walk up to a food vendor. What does your character experience on a daily basis? Are they shoved on the street or have they had their purse stolen in the daylight? These all reflect who your character is and how they tell the story.

Listen. People don’t talk the same. A British woman doesn’t speak the same as a New Yorker. A farmer from Kentucky won’t speak the same way as a Southern Belle or a teenager from Seattle. The region, education, gender and even family life can play a huge role in how we develop vocabulary. Be a fly on the wall. Have a notebook, a phone or a tablet, in which you record snippets of conversation. These may be people talking on a bus or diners within a cafe, but they will all be useful when writing your novel. These snippets of language are going to make your character sound more authentic and larger than life. If your character is from Dallas, he should sound like he’s from Dallas. He shouldn’t have the author’s voice. Those that know you will think that character is you. You don’t want that.

Imagine your story as a movie. This is a big step. Those novels with realistic settings often are made into films. Poorly written novels, and those novels with poorly designed settings, usually don’t get a second glance from screenwriters. Do you want Hollywood to notice your novel? I would hope the answer’s yes. This is all the more reason to take writing your novel seriously. Make it authentic and genuine. All good books have been thoroughly researched. Your research is your setting. Make more than one trip if you must, but get it done. It has to feel real to your reader and to your characters. Take pictures, shoot videos and take extensive notes. By the end of the novel, you’re going to be an expert.

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