Hi there! Duolit is on hiatus, but please feel free to explore our extensive archive of posts and our free Weekend Book Marketing Makeover. Thanks for visiting!

How Do You Choose Your Setting? [Discussion]

BoGaHo during its final summer, 2003.

Once upon a time, there was a house called BoGaHo.

Built by the calloused hands of Pop, my great-grandfather, the rustic home was the backdrop of summer memories for three generations of my family. My mother grew up there, swimming in the muddy waters of the lake with her cousins, and years later I did the same. It was, beyond the shadow of any doubt, my favorite place on Earth. If Heaven is whatever you want it to be, my eternity will be spent at that little cottage on the lake.

Unfortunately, Heaven and my imagination are the only places where I am able visit BoGaHo again. The house fell into a state of disrepair my senior year of high school and was sold to a new owner who promptly bull dozed it to build a new, fancypants lake house that will never match the beauty that was BoGaHo.

I’ve struggled to come to terms with the loss of such a special place, and in doing so I have decided that someday I will immortalize it in a book. As a writer, that’s the best way I can pay tribute to that house and all the memories it held.

Though I’ve played around with a number of different ideas, I’ve yet to settle on the right plot line to match my perfect setting. It’s an unusual situation to have a setting but not a plot, even though both are equally important to creating a great piece of writing.

So how do you come up with the setting (or settings, as the case may be) of your novels? I’m really curious to know how my fellow authors handle place settings and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Here are a few things I’d like to know:

– Do you ever come up with a setting before developing a plot like I did?

– Have you ever written a story that takes place in a real city or country that you’ve never been to?

– For all the fantasy and sci-fi writers, how do you go about creating entire worlds for your novels?

– Does nostalgia ever play a roll in the development of your scenes?

– Are there times when a setting actually becomes part of the plot itself?


  • Great post! I’m curious as to why it was called “BoGAHo.” 

    For years, I wanted to write a novel set in rural NC where I grew up, but nothing seemed to ever “click.” I finally hit upon the right formula last fall and wrote “Hainted,” which is with my editor right now. I even resurrected the old truck I used to drive (primer gray, no AC, constantly breaking down) for the protagonist (poor guy!).

    • Thanks Jordan! We called in BoGaHo for the last names of the families involved in building it — Boddie, Gantt and Holt. 

      That’s awesome that you found the right formula to use your old stomping grounds and even your truck — I love to find out that authors have put real details like that into their work. Good luck with the new book, keep us posted on your progress! :-)

  • Anne-marie

    Since I was writing a nostalgic/historical series that was taking place in Toronto in the late 70s, location took on a whole new meaning- I had to make sure the places I had in mind (some of which were earlier memories of mine from the early 70s as a kid) had still existed, and then had to research their interiors for accuracy. The most fun part was blending in special streets and settings into the plot as a shout-out to dear friends. I would say nostalgia, in my case, went hand in hand with the plot but did not distract from it. And no, I have never used settings of places I’ve never visited. Even when my series took some characters to London, England, and then to Mauritius, these are all places I had visited and then did a bit more research on to make sure my years meshed with the story. I am now in awe of people who did research before Google. :)

    • Man, can you imagine trying to look all that stuff up before the internet? I’d be ‘writing what I knew’ if only to avoid *that* fun. Thanks for sharing your experience, Anne-marie!

  • Cheryl Schenk

    When young, I always had a romantic notion about the life of pioneers without understanding the hardships. The setting of my WIP has been in my head for a very long time and it is exciting trying, now, to bring it to life.

    • Good luck with that, Cheryl! I always find it interesting to imagine another time. Even though we don’t know exactly what it was like, I enjoy picturing what other authors have in their minds!

  • Morgan_M

    I tend to think of places that I desperately want to go, explore and find out about in such a detailed way. The first real manuscript I wrote was set in Chicago, a place I had read about and wanted to visit someday. Research was heavy and very involved, and when I finally came out for a visit–it was like I knew the city entirely..and ended up moving there. It all depends on the characters, I try to key in locations that mold to their persona. A side project is set in Texas–the loud and lively personalities, the culture and history, open lands–etc. It fits the characters to a T.

    • What a cool story, Morgan! Was there anything about Chicago that was different than you pictured/researched? It’s also certainly true that Texas and other places in the South have a personality all their own — and I say that as a born-and-raised Southerner! 

    • Morgan_M

      Actually the suburb that was where one of the characters lived was much smaller than I’d mapped out but made the ‘walking distances’ more than real. The city itself was pretty spot on, and actually helped me in not getting lost when wandering around getting familiar. It was odd, almost like deja-vu. Turning and facing one building that I had referenced to, of course building textures were off but apart from that one can really only thank google street maps as scary as that it :)

  • I definitely had only my protagonist and setting when I set out to write Gifted. I haven’t been to the circus in 20 years, but for some reason I just knew it would be at the circus–despite that it moves to a different city for each book, it’s still the same layout and will give readers familiarity. It’ s a huge part of the plot, a main force driving the story as the setting and people go together. As far as creating it, I researched, but of course used my imagination as you don’t find too many of my employees in the real world :) It was so fun to create whatever I thought would look pretty in a circus!

    • While I certainly value research, as a reader it’s also enjoyable simply to get lost in whatever setting the author imagines — getting too nitpicky over the details dampens that fun! Thanks for sharing your method, Liz!