How to Write a Compelling Story Using a Familiar Setting

This article is by Daniel Adorno.

fantasy planetAs a fantasy and scifi geek, the settings I choose for my stories are always quite imaginative. I want to transport the reader to some distant planet outside of our galaxy. Or to a magical realm with a deep history and interesting creatures like centaurs or wyverns flying around. It’s the fun stuff that comes with being a speculative author: worldbuilding.

Unlike realistic genres like thrillers, crime, and romance, the environments in fantasy and science fiction novels are very important. They’re almost another character in the story.

Let’s take Tolkien for instance. The man took worldbuilding to the nth level–creating rich histories and mythologies for Middle-Earth and genealogies for his characters that spanned centuries! Few modern authors today (myself included) have the kind of patience or interest to commit to such an intense effort, but there are a few exceptions (Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, etc.). But what about those who don’t have the patience to create layer upon layer of history, culture, or intricacies to their worlds? Well, this post is for you. Here are some tips on how to create a decent world without getting too bogged down in minutia:

Pick a setting/environment you already know

Do you want to know the secret of publishing multiple books in a year? It’s easy. Don’t get caught in the weeds of researching your novel extensively or what I like to call preproduction.

Worldbuilding requires quite a bit of research sometimes and the best way to cut down on that is to choose an environment/setting you already know well. Need a place for a zombie outbreak to occur in your post-apocalyptic novel? Pick your hometown, the city where you went to college, or the last place you vacationed. Try to choose locales you’ve already visited or know really well. That way you don’t have to research and build your world from scratch. You already know the most popular restaurant in town or the shady areas of that neighborhood you got lost in one time. Using the details you already know about a place will already put you in a better position to complete your novel faster. Not every tale has to take place in New York City or London.

This gets a little trickier when you write historical fiction or medieval fantasy, but I’ve got a tip that will help. Have you ever seen the Back to the Future movies? In the third film when Marty goes back in time to 1885, Hill Valley is no longer an 80s suburb, but an Old West backwater town. The cool thing is a few of the locations in that era remain intact–like the clock tower and city hall. Do the same thing with your setting. We all have a mental map of areas we’ve visited and know. So take that knowledge of your hometown and use your imagination to re-imagine main street as a medieval town in your epic fantasy novel. That civic center on the corner of the bustling street you drive past each day? Turn it into a colosseum where knights fight to the death! The possibilities can be endless, but the great thing is that you’ve already got a framework to work with rather than starting with nothing. Plus famous authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz have used places they’ve lived in as settings for their books, so you’ll be in good company with this strategy!

Limit research of your chosen locale

The best thing about picking a place for your novel to be set that you know extensively is that you’re automatically an authority on it! So the benefit is not having to spend hours researching that environment. But of course, we’re authors and we love to research and perfect our stories! But we must be diligent and moderate our research time with our writing time (hint: the latter is more important!).

Here are some questions to ask if you’re unsure about how much research on the setting your novel needs:

  • Is the plot of my story heavily tied to this place I’ve chosen?
  • Is it necessary to know the history of this place for the purposes of my story?
  • Do I need to research the placement of certain buildings or physical locations?
  • Are there idiosyncrasies about this location such as language, culture, or specific people groups that I need to know about?
  • Are there specific landmarks I need to include in my story?

If you answered “yes” to any of these then of course you should spend a little time researching, but I recommend limiting yourself to a half hour or less. If you have to do more than that, then the time spent on research should be proportionate to your writing time. In other words, if you’re on Google, Wikipedia, etc. for more than hour, make up that time with an hour of writing. Pretty simple, right? Now onto the final thing…

Don’t be a slave to pinpoint accuracy

Just because you’ve picked a setting you know, doesn’t mean you can’t embellish it some way. You are a fiction author after all! Sometimes depicting a place we’re familiar with lures us into the trap that we need said place to be as faithful to reality as possible. Perhaps we’re scared that a resident of that town, city, state, etc. will read our book and slam us with a negative review of how inaccurate our setting is. Unless you’re a historical fiction writer known for factual, realistic portrayals, this is an unfounded fear. I say take creative liberties with your chosen place and make it work with your story. Of course, don’t go too far or else you’ll get back into preproduction where you’re reinventing the wheel. Leave enough of the place intact so you don’t need to do more research or spend too much time worldbuilding.

So now that you know how to utilize the places you know as settings in your story, go craft your next masterpiece and share it with the friends who live there!

Have you used a familiar setting in one of your stories? Did it help you complete your story quicker or was it a hindrance?

About the Author:

Daniel Adorno is an independently published fantasy and sci-fi author who loves talking about the writing craft and the self-publishing industry. His fantasy novel, The Blade Heir, is available at all major online booksellers. Connect with Daniel on Facebook, Twitter, and at danieladorno.com

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Andrea Robinson
Andrea Robinson
5 years ago

What a creative way to build a setting! I do know several locations I’ve fantasized about using, but was a little daunted by the trips to the location and the extensive research to get it just right! So this is really helpful and fun. Thanks a lot, Daniel!

🙂

Daniel Adorno
Reply to  Andrea Robinson
5 years ago

Thanks, Andrea! Happy to provide some help to make the writing easier and more enjoyable!

Katie Smith
Katie Smith
5 years ago

Those are some great tips! These tips will definitely help when I start writing my first real novel.

Daniel Adorno
Reply to  Katie Smith
5 years ago

Glad they were helpful, Katie! Best of luck on writing that novel 🙂

Philip Overby
5 years ago

Thanks for sharing! Some great insight here. I especially like the idea of turning your environment into a fantasy world. We get inspired by things all around us at all times. So why not put locations in our stories the same way we might put a quirky bartender we know or an angry cook? Anything that cuts back on world-building time is always good.

Daniel Adorno
5 years ago

Agreed, Nils. You’re always more of an expert on a location if you live there, so it definitely helps you capture the sights and sounds for a reader.

Nils Odlund
5 years ago

Another advantage of using a place you’re familiar with is that when describing it your familiarity with the setting enables you to describe it with more confidence. This is a subtle thing, but I believe this confidence will shine through in the text, making for a better impression given to the reader.

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