There’s more to setting than time and place

The other day I wrote about the importance of establishing your setting early. The location and date are key pieces of data for readers to have, but setting encompasses a great deal more.

The culture and mood are evoked through description and character reactions.

Culture is a vital piece of worldbuilding, whether you’re writing a contemporary romance or a science fiction thriller. Of course, the topic of culture is itself deep water, as it encompasses many things. But for purposes of this discussion, consider the following and how they affect your storyworld:

  • Level of technology
  • Art: music, visual arts, drama
  • Socioeconomic conditions
  • Size of the gap between rich and poor
  • Political system
  • Religion(s)
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Photo by bonvivant •

One mistake many new writers make is to dump all of this in an essay right at the beginning of the book. Don’t. Essays are for English Composition class. They have no place in your novel. Describe what your character is doing. Show what he’s seeing. Share what he’s thinking. Convey the culture by letting the reader experience it alongside the viewpoint character. Here’s an example, the first sentence of Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid:

Achan stumbled through the dark to the barn.

If those few words, Williamson shows that Achan has menial work to do in a preindustrial culture. If it were industrial, he’d probably have a flashlight or the equivalent. She continues this way, adding details at every moment, until you get a clear picture of the culture Achan lives in. The key is that it is entirely rooted in his point of view.

How your characters interact with one another will also reveal their cultures. We generally think of this in “fish out of water” stories like Beverly Hills Cop, in which Axel Foley leaves Detroit to pursue a friend’s killer in California. Much of the film’s humor is based on sensible, streetwise Foley coming up against the absurdities that abound in LA.

But keep in mind that even within a given region, several subcultures are likely to co-exist. The Help, for example, shows the contrast between white culture and black culture, with the protagonist conducting her interviews right in her own hometown.


The feeling your readers get as they progress through your story is mood—an ephemeral thing. It may change from one scene to the next, but generally one mood with pervade the whole novel. By keeping the reader grounded in the viewpoint character and then allowing the character’s feelings to color the work, you ensure that the mood is integral to the story.

Avoid the new writer’s mistake of trying to shoehorn the mood in with heavy-handed narrative. “It was a bright, happy day” will not go nearly as far to convey a cheerful mood as “She felt as enlightened by the spring sunshine as by the brilliant conversation of her walking buddies.” Enlightened, sunshine, brilliant…by placing mood-related words into the viewpoint character’s experience, you deliver mood invisibly.

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