Jeanette Hornby - setting of a story post graphic

Ideas for Writing | Choosing the Setting of a Story

Readers generally absorb the setting of a story subconsciously - unless it grates with what they are familiar with! Choosing the setting of a story and accurately communicating it to the reader is, as How to be an Author guest poster, Jeanette Hornby, illustrates, "fundamental in establishing the mood" and believability of the wider story.

Choosing the Setting of a Story

by Jeanette Hornby

Jeanette Hornby - setting of a story post graphicThe setting for a novel includes the historical time period, culture, and location of the story, and is fundamental in establishing the mood and scene of coming events. Where stories discuss such subjects as society and environment, the setting is extremely significant. In some instances, it is possible for the setting to become a character itself.

If the story is woven around an actual event then the setting can be pivotal to the plot. The consequences of the event are ‘real’ and will affect how we write about the fictional characters and their responses to the incident. We cannot ignore the historical outcome if the story is set in a real place or time.

The setting may be a real location or a fictional one. It is even possible to use both fictional and real places in a story.

Real Locations, Fictional Places

In my novels, I use real locations but add fictional places within them. This allows me to use historical landmarks and events while taking the story in any direction I choose. I find it easier to begin with real places rather than make up completely fictional ones though this may change in the future.

My first two novels are set in my home-town in Western Australia and the setting should have been easy to describe, but the stories are set in the ’70s and ’80s, respectively, and things have changed since then. I had to retrieve old memories, photos, and scrapbooks to help me ‘re-live’ those days.

“how they dealt with the bigotry and turmoil of Australian life in those eras”

The setting was important in these two novels because the subject matter centred on the lives of my characters (children of Italian migrants) and how they dealt with the bigotry and turmoil of Australian life in those eras. The small country town in which I lived was just one example of the migrant struggle for acceptance in Australia at the time, and revealed the changing face of Australia, so was crucial to the story.


The hours of research were worth the effort and I rather enjoyed taking a walk down memory-lane. Thankfully, I am familiar with the ‘Australian-isms’ and was able to set the scenes rather easily and authentically.

All my novels, thus far, are set in Australia where I have lived all my life. It is often easier to write about a place that you know because you already have a ‘feel’ for it, but good research can also help the writer with this. Asking questions is vital.

We are privileged to live in this high-tech age where information is readily accessible. My third novel, Candy’s Man, is set in Sydney – a place I have never been – but I was able to research the area on the internet and even gained visual access of certain streets and places with Google Maps. This worked well for my contemporary romance tale.

Characterisation vs Setting

The characters in this novel were the focal point of the story and therefore, the setting was not as significant, but it was still important to set the scene. From a cruise in the Caribbean, to the city of Sydney, it was vital to take the reader on a journey along with the characters. I feel the description of popular Sydney landmarks helped convey the uniqueness of Australia to the reader.

As some of my characters are American in this novel and their culture and language differ somewhat, I was able to use the knowledge of my American editor to find the discrepancies. You can never have too much information, and it all adds to setting the scene.

My current Work-In-Progress, Grapevines and Gum Trees, is set in a historical town in Western Australia, but the actual place and residence of the characters is fictional. This allows me once again to use historical landmarks and events while shaping the story as I see fit.

The story is set in the mid ’80s when ‘progress’ had not yet fully encroached on the small country town. I wanted to portray the area as the tranquil place I remember from my youth.
Once again, I use my knowledge of the area to my advantage, describing landmarks that are well-known in the area. Hopefully, my descriptions give all readers a ‘feel’ of this wonderful country in which I live.

Choosing the setting of a story clearly makes a fundamental contribution and often drives the story line within a novel. How do you choose the setting for your stories? Share your thoughts in the comments below - and share with your friends, too!

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