Setting: Put me in your place!

Don’t lose your readers by wandering in the wilderness without a good mental map

a really cool map of Haverhill

Most writers have stumbled across the advice “don’t dwell on setting.” Some top-selling authors deliberately ignore this advice–Jean Auel (Earth’s Children series that began with Clan of the Cave Bear) comes to mind immediately. Others draw you a map, literally, inside the front cover.

I’m not a big fan of the map idea, since you have to either memorize it or continually page back for reference. I’m also sure that many of Auel’s readers join me in skipping past those endless and tedious landscape descriptions.

Still, you don’t want to lose your readers, literally.

On the other hand, you don’t want to lead your readers into the wilderness without some sort of guidance. Use road names, compass directions, and distances to feed us the lay of your land. Draw your map with words, and do it succinctly.

Successful writers physically walk or drive their locations so they can clearly place you there. If you’re on a limited budget, use tools like Google Earth–or keep your settings close to home until you get that big advance from Random House.

The trick is to dribble out your map only as needed. Use your characters’ movements and dialogue to reveal their surroundings. Bestselling author Lee Child (the wonderful Jack Reacher series) does this brilliantly: we often only know what Jack knows.

You don’t have to write in the first person point of view (POV) to limit your landscape. Just follow your character’s progress, even when you’re using the third person, omniscient, POV.

Watch how Lee Child’s Nothing to Lose (2008) handles this:

“…Behind him to the east was a shallow bowl maybe ten miles in diameter with the town of Hope roughly in its center, eight or nine miles back, maybe ten blocks by six of brick-built buildings and an outlying clutter of houses and farms and barns and other structures made of wood and corrugated metal…”

Less than fifty words to paint a rustic picture of the place Reacher has left behind. Later in that same paragraph, the author spends another fifty words or so to describe the next town to the west. He gives the general lay of the land and the main character’s first impressions, to be expanded later when Reacher arrives in the town of Despair.

Here’s another great example from Child’s most recent release,  A Wanted Man (2012):

“…A century earlier someone had drawn a square on a map, and the shape had stuck. The square was transected twice, first by a two-lane road running all the way across it left to right, west to east, and again by two-lane road running bottom to top, south to north. Those two roads met near the middle of the square and made a crossroads, around which a town of eight thousand people had grown up…”

Now, there’s a map!

Why not describe the whole town, city or rural setting as the start of a chapter?

No doubt, that’s been done many times. Equally doubtless, plenty of readers skim right past your careful map with a sigh, looking for the next bit of action. Then later in the chapter, when you refer vaguely back to something you described, your reader realizes she’s clueless and has to go back to read that first part all over again. Might as well have drawn that map, huh?

What if you’re creating an entire fictional town, or even a whole world?

Writers do this all the time, and not just in Sci-Fi novels.

Stephen King enclosed a large village inside a virtual bubble in his over 1000-page novel Under the Dome. Interestingly enough, King did indeed include a colorful map of his fictional Chester’s Mill. However, during the days in which I devoured this monstrous book, I never had to refer back to King’s map.

Throughout the novel, King grounds his readers again and again with specific road names, impressions of the shadows cast by the rising or setting sun, familiar storefronts as landmarks–even humorous road signs like the one that says “Come back real soon!” for travelers leaving Chester’s Mill.

It’s a fine line on that map — between boring your readers to tears and leaving them lost.

How can you get it just right, in your own writing?

Suggestion: Instead of addressing an imaginary reader, picture an audience of one — a good friend. A friend with a life and distractions. Now tell him or her what that little town looks like on first impression, or how to get from the hero’s house to the hardware store. This technique works wonders.

Try this: In the comment section, tell us how to get from your house to the nearest grocery store (or gas station, etc). Strive for a mixture of informative, engrossing, and entertaining — in as few words as reasonable.

»photo credit: Norman B Leventhal Map Center at the BPL


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  1. Great article, Jim! Wonderful advice for all writers! We don’t always need a map, but sometimes a map offers additional perspective.
    I carefully avoid wildlife for a half mile west on Whitewood Road, watching for beavers at Whitewood Creek. I wonder at the gigantic new black and yellow checkered sign. Choosing south, I appreciate #590, paved bliss and old farms for 5 miles to the old fire hall.
    On #588 it’s turn left to Hopper’s Variety, or dally downhill into the idyllic little village of Nolalu.

  2. Great advice Jim. Starting out with a rough sketch of your geography is good if you’re making it up. You can add stuff as you go along too and your readers won’t get confused if you stick to the map, even if they never see it.


    • Great point, Mike — you can make up your terrain as you “go” — perfect! Always appreciate your feedback, thanks!

  3. When it comes to economy of prose you can’t go wrong with Child and Reacher as examples.

  4. Well, if you really want to know how to get to Dutch’s Market from my house: Go down the dirt road until you reach the “real” road and turn left and–making certain you watch out for deer, wild turkey and even the occasional red-tail fox– you head down the hill, cross the stream–you can slow down or stop entirely and watch it flow for a while, cuz it really is pretty– and make sure you stop at the 4-way stop at Brink Hill and Hemlock Grove. There’s always a fool or two who won’t or can’t stop at the bottom of that huge hill and I don’t think you’d want to get hit. It could hurt. Then continue around the curve past the lovely stone building housing Roger’s car care, past the not to pretty car wash and there’s Dutch’s plain as you please. Can’t miss it. No, I’m not brief except in height, but you did ask!

  5. Damn, you used two of my ‘draft post’ suggestions. But we all on the same team 😉 I couldn’t pass this challenge up:
    “Take a right out of the garage, immediate right fast from 0 to 55 mph and try to get into the left lane to turn left at an engineer’s nightmare for an intersection. Catch your breath for a mile until you see the ugliest excuse for a commercial sign you’ve ever seen. That’s the grocery store. The produce section doesn’t look much better. Good luck!”

    • Jim Bessey says

      Wow, that was fun, Lee!

      I love the urgency and energy you display in your sample scene. What were the draft post suggestions? Tell me more?

      • Glad you did, Jim! It simulates in words the various heartrates of drivers around here depending upon whether a speed limit is enforced (slow down) or not (race likabatouttahell!). Draft post is down the road, figuratively speaking. I start a lot of them and add to them as I go. Today was rough so no Ilie Ruby post. You’ll know where to read it…;) My best to you!!

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