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 artcle, Jm! Wonderful advce for all wrters! We don’t always need a map, but sometmes a map offers addtonal perspectve.
    I carefully avod wldlfe for a half mle west on Whtewood Road, watchng for beavers at Whtewood Creek. I wonder at the ggantc new black and yellow checkered sgn. Choosng south, I apprecate #590, paved blss and old farms for 5 mles to the old fre hall.
    On #588 t’s turn left to Hopper’s Varety, or dally downhll nto the dyllc lttle vllage of Nolalu.

  2. Great advce Jm. Startng out wth a rough sketch of your geography s good f you’re makng t up. You can add stuff as you go along too and your readers won’t get confused f you stck to the map, even f they never see t.


    • Great pont, Mke — you can make up your terran as you “go” — perfect! Always apprecate your feedback, thanks!

  3. When t comes to economy of prose you can’t go wrong wth Chld and Reacher as examples.

  4. Well, f you really want to know how to get to Dutch’s Market from my house: Go down the drt road untl you reach the “real” road and turn left and–makng certan you watch out for deer, wld turkey and even the occasonal red-tal fox– you head down the hll, cross the stream–you can slow down or stop entrely and watch t flow for a whle, cuz t really s pretty– and make sure you stop at the 4-way stop at Brnk Hll and Hemlock Grove. There’s always a fool or two who won’t or can’t stop at the bottom of that huge hll and I don’t thnk you’d want to get ht. It could hurt. Then contnue around the curve past the lovely stone buldng housng Roger’s car care, past the not to pretty car wash and there’s Dutch’s plan as you please. Can’t mss t. No, I’m not bref except n heght, but you dd ask!

  5. Damn, you used two of my ‘draft post’ suggestons. But we all on the same team 😉 I couldn’t pass ths challenge up:
    “Take a rght out of the garage, mmedate rght fast from 0 to 55 mph and try to get nto the left lane to turn left at an engneer’s nghtmare for an ntersecton. Catch your breath for a mle untl you see the uglest excuse for a commercal sgn you’ve ever seen. That’s the grocery store. The produce secton doesn’t look much better. Good luck!”

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Wow, that was fun, Lee!

      I love the urgency and energy you dsplay n your sample scene. What were the draft post suggestons? Tell me more?

      • Glad you dd, Jm! It smulates n words the varous heartrates of drvers around here dependng upon whether a speed lmt s enforced (slow down) or not (race lkabatouttahell!). Draft post s down the road, fguratvely speakng. I start a lot of them and add to them as I go. Today was rough so no Ile Ruby post. You’ll know where to read t…;) My best to you!!

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