Who didn't want to be a wizard alongside Harry after reading all about Hogwarts and its castle-like demeanor with moving staircases and talking portraits?!? A setting's "character" can suck in the reader. Rowling created a completely unique world which her fans wanted to return to time and again. Carefully crafted, the setting of your story can be just as integral to your tale as any living, breathing, walking, talking character.
3 TIPs to help a setting's character come to life:
1. Be selective - Readers lose interest if description is bogged down with the obvious. Writing about a gas station? Most readers know what that looks like. However, if this gas station's roof is partially caved in, three-foot-high grass is shooting up through cracks in the sidewalk, and graffiti covers every inch of the storefront ... well, that's something to mention. Writing about a grocery story? Most readers know what that looks like. What if the shelves are overflowing with only yellow boxes of Cheerios? What if two bright suns burn twin beams through the window, laying a spotlight on the cash register, its drawer open and empty but for a single penny? Let your reader use his or her knowledge of the obvious paired with the unique details you provide. The mind will fill in the gaps and create a mental picture.
2. Use your senses - Plant sensory details the reader can recognize based on his or her own experiences. Does the movie theater smell like overcooked hotdogs and popcorn butter or body sweat and musky perfume? Do the floorboards of the dilapidated barn creak like an old woman's knees? Does the wind whistle through the tunnel, swirling about the little boy's shoulders and lifting his bangs from his face as he inches toward its source? The senses can add a more intimate layer to any setting.
3. Do your homework - If your story is set in a real place, either visit it in person or use Google Maps to explore. This way you can easily add details that create an authentic experience for readers. For instance, if you are setting your story in Savannah, Georgia, you'd be remiss in not mentioning the many bars and eateries along River Street or the strategically-placed parks with Spanish moss hanging from the trees.
BONUS TIP - Write it all down. Take notes of your setting's details, to keep everything straight. Are all the city's streets named after types of trees, east to west, and numbered north to south? Is there a fence surrounding the community? Are the homes upscale or falling down? Is there a body of water? Use visual aids - note cards, a dry erase board, or even a hand-drawn map - to use as a reference. This is particularly helpful when world-building for a fantasy novel or, in the case of Rowling, creating a plot which spans multiple fictional settings in and around real locations.
Setting Sample -
The following excerpt introduces the reader to any typical summer camp in the woods and includes familiar sensory details (a colorful sunrise over a lake and breathing in cool, clean air). In addition, it includes a not-so-familiar curiosity (Seneca Sal), that tempts the reader to know more.
Excerpt from "Forest for the Trees," young adult
By Brenda Haas
Above the main entrance to the mess hall was a metal bell, with a rope dangling down to eye level. Christina motioned the girls through the wooden doors. A huge, stuffed black bear greeted them. A sign around his neck read “Seneca Sal says, ‘Respect nature and nature will respect you’.” His beady, black eyes seemed to follow as Em walked by. She was all for respecting nature, but Sal creeped her out.
The building was long and narrow – an empty fireplace at both ends – and the air smelled of apple pie, fried chicken, and cleaning fluids. Tables hunched in eight sturdy rows of four. Ceiling-to-floor screened windows provided a view of the lake as the sun sewed a horizontal blanket of reds and oranges on its surface. The strips of color reached from the shoreline, extended across the water, and met the opposite woods and boy’s camp on the other side. A massive Maple rose above the campfire site at the water’s edge, its branches fanning out in a majestic silhouette. Em took a deep breath. The cool, clean air from the nearest window slammed into her lungs, waking her more thoroughly than any caffeine could.