On Writing: How to Capture Setting

Writing a believable scene is a difficult task for many writers, especially when it comes to travel articles, historical fiction, and anything else that reinterprets real people, places, and events. It can be incredibly tough to effectively transcribe the real world into immersive content. In all honesty, I don’t think that one shortcut will make us masters at this—it takes years of practice—but I’ve gathered up a few tips that might help us look at the world through literature-tinted glasses. If you want to write in a way that most accurately depicts what you see and feel, this article is for you. 

There are three different schools of thought when it comes to studying setting: the now, the later, and the never. All of these methods are totally valid, and I'm sure there are plenty more out there! As you read through, think about which one suits you most... if any!

The Now

Writers who subscribe to the "now" theory might carry around a pack of pens and a leather bound journal. They're the ones who sit thoughtfully underneath a willow tree and contemplate the wildflowers; the ones who pour over their laptops in a bustling French cafe, observing their surroundings immediately and directly. Right here, right now. This technique allows for a stream of consciousness that most accurately describes the scene unfolding before you, but it doesn't consist of much dissection. It's all about the free flow, no "fixing in post" allowed. It is a great way to realistically capture your setting, but it can be somewhat difficult to focus when the wind is blowing the pages right from your notebook, let alone when the sea splashes your face in the midst of a great poem. 

The Later

This writing style stems from the Romantic author Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his autobiography Biographia Literaria, Coleridge explores the concept of a primary and secondary imagination. This two-tiered theory is essentially a fancy way to differentiate between a passing thought and a work of art. 

In Coleridge’s theory, the primary imagination includes snap judgements, first impressions, and unconscious thought. According to him, everyone utilizes their primary imagination. The secondary imagination is more of a deconstruct, stew over, reconstruct situation. This creative process takes place when the writer or artist retrospectively ponders their observation and derives meaning that wasn’t there before. Coleridge didn’t believe that everyone had the ability to utilize their secondary imagination, but he also believed that he was a “poet prophet,” and that only artists (emphasis on the "eest") could properly translate God’s supreme creations to the common people. Insert air quotes where you feel they're needed. He had one heck of an ego, but let’s try to eat the watermelon and spit out the seeds. 

Writers that use this method often try to stay in the moment, only pulling out their phones or notebooks to jot down quick details that they don’t want to forget. Ultimately, they strive to stay present, make observations, and then mull them over later to make sense of everything.

The Never

This type of writer may never leave their desk. This person is completely capable of writing a story or article without needing to seek inspiration from the outside world. They can fabricate an atmosphere, a conversation, or a tone accurately from the comfort of their plush office chair. Wikipedia, Google Earth, and in-depth topical articles are this person’s best friend. In fact, I wish I was more like this! I’m trying to write a short horror story, but to properly get this done I feel like I need to hire some real-life ghouls to haunt me. For now, I’ll continue to surf the web and play spooky soundtracks on Spotify. 

What To Look For

Now that we've considered a few of the ways writers approach observation, it's time to put your favorite technique into practice! Whether you're out there living in the moment, pondering the significance of life, the universe, and dandelions, or just sitting in your room with the lights dimmed and a scented candle burning, it's time to discover the most important elements of setting

  • Weather/Climate: These two elements are key when setting the tone of your story. We are all familiar with the common clichés: the dark and stormy night, the final sunset, the relentless blizzard, etc. etc. etc. They are overused for a reason! The weather can act as an extension of the characters and events that exist in your world. Weather can be a friend, an enemy, a blessing or a warning. It can set the stage for a heel turn, or compliment the scene unfolding before you. It is absolutely vital, especially in travel writing! If you write in first person like I tend to do, you can use the weather and climate to your advantage by re-imagining those times you've been effected by them, adding yet another element of believability and immersion to your story. Weather allows the reader to step into your shoes and experience the destination on a whole new level. Keep an active eye on it when out in the field! 

  • Time: Time is another element of setting that is often indispensable. No, you don't have to type "4:30 PM" to set the foundation for a believable setting, but it may be beneficial to describe how the sun is positioned directly above you, the length of its shadows, the way the moon lights up the tree branches, or even something as subtle as fresh dew atop a spiderweb. Small details that allude to a specific time of day often enhance the tone and plausibility of your setting. Once again, keep those hawk eyes open for similar details. 
  • Historical Significance: When writing about a specific setting, it can be beneficial to know a bit about its history. Any destination you can imagine most likely has a long laundry list of unearthed significance. When visiting old buildings, cathedrals, churches, towns, parks or natural landscapes to observe settings, it can be so incredibly helpful to do proper research. Take our Joshua Tree National Park article for instance. The beauty of Joshua Tree is derived from it's components. Its enduring and expansive wildlife, plant life, and rock formations are enough to spark interest and forge a few basic themes: hostility, suffering, and determination. I mean, honestly—can you imagine a ghost story without a dark and brooding history? It just doesn't feel right! You can find motivation and symbolism in anything with a bit of research, and in my opinion, historical information is the most vital aspect of a great setting.
  • Culture/Tradition: These elements tie in nicely with the former, but they are important enough to mention seperately. When conjuring up or observing a setting, it can be easy to forget how frequently emotion, life, and tradition are woven within it. A town is nothing without the people that occupy it; a forest is nothing without the ecosystem that populates it. For example, if you were to travel to a populous city in India and write about the landscape sans the vibrant colors, bustling streets, exciting people and the sweet and spicy smells of scrumptious food, you'd be missing the point entirely! Knowing a bit about the people that live in your ideal destination can enhance your perspective and the accuracy of your story. What would Everest be without its bittersweet reputation, or the people who live to conquer it?
  • Sensory Detail: Sensory details are EVERYTHING. If you've ever taken a creative writing class, you'll know why I felt the need to SCREAM type. Sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing are all you need and more in a story. When considering setting, it can be easy to see something beautiful and describe it at point blank. The sky is red, the leaves are dry, the soil is dark. There is so much more to be discovered! What did the air feel like... Was it hot, musty, biting, or windy? Did the leaves smell like spring, Christmas, or bitter sap? Could you hear cicadas, the city bus, or the dull hum of an airplane passing overhead? The options are endless. For a story to feel truly immersive, you have to take the reader on a journey that will excite their mind and their body. I want to feel like I'm there with you, and I want you to feel like you're here with me! 

Now that you've deconstructed the setting, it's your job to put it all back together. And no, you can't just toss all the pieces in a bowl and make a fruit salad—you have to break out the whole cookbook, strap on the oven mitts and get steamy! In a baking related way, of course. In other words: take your various elements, consider what you really want to write about, and conjure up a theme. 

The Theme

Lorie Ann Grover says it best in her Writer’s Digest article, "6 Tips for Writing Fiction Based on True Events." 

"Once the story is caught in your net, as a writer you have an opportunity to now ask: how could it be made better? What is the theme burning beneath it, and what can I do to feed the flames?

Once you've done a close reading of the environment around you, it's time to crack open it’s secrets. You must dig beneath the surface and discover the significance of the place, person, or moment you've just witnessed. Take it from the the other Romantic authors—inspiration, meaning, and purpose can be drawn from literally anything! (Sorry for the extreme optimism, nihilists, but you are reading an article written by a very sentimental person). The main reason I entertain the thought of a "secondary imagination" is this step alone. I believe that everything has an underlying meaning that can be brought to the surface by written word or other forms of art, conversation, and entertainment. It's our job to pick apart an important scene and tell readers why it is worth reading about! When it comes to travel writing, this step is so important. When you write about any destination, giving it life through metaphor, historical significance, and immersive description will naturally draw people in. It's the storyteller's gift.

In conclusion, the majority of these writing techniques have one thing in common—being present. Of course, that's just good life advice in general, but it can be so beneficial to pay attention, enjoy the moment, and jot down notes as a writer. As any and every person, matter-of-factly. I write about writing because it's what I know best, but taking time out of the day to decode a captivating setting can be remarkably rewarding for anyone. Now go! Take your leather bound journals and ball point pens and hit the streets! Safely, please... and with purpose.

Thank you so much for reading. Andrew and I have had a summer full of obligations, so travel has sat on the back burner. We will be bringing more destination based articles to the table soon, but I hope you like these spin-off articles in the meantime. Best wishes, and talk to us in the comments!