Posted On January 28, 2013 by Print This Post

Setting – The First, Most Crucial Choice for your Career AND your Character – Blythe Gifford

Blythe Gifford joins us at RU today – and will be giving away a commenters choice of one of her Brunson Clan Trilogy books! Make sure you leave your email address!

Blythe Gifford PhotoFor the last several years, the writing conversation has framed the chicken and egg question as character vs. plot.  But I think that setting (where and when the story takes place) is perhaps the single most fundamental decision an author makes.  Here are my reasons.  See if you agree.

Setting is the fundamental marketing decision.  A story’s setting determines who is likely to publish and read it.  Contemporary or historical, science fiction or urban fantasy, urban or rural, each of these opens one door and closes another.  I write historical romance, which means that readers who “don’t like history” or “only read paranormal” won’t pick up my book.  (Even Regency-only readers will write me off!)  It also means that publishing houses that focus on certain types of stories won’t publish mine, no matter how good it may be.

Before they crack the cover, your setting will create readers expectations about your story.  New York City or a small town in Amish country?  Each brings connotations, things the reader assumes without you having to write a word.  (One of the challenges, I believe, in unfamiliar settings and time periods is that readers don’t know what to expect.)  Can you turn those expectations upside down?  Yes, but that will add another hurdle to your task as a writer.

This is why I say it is the single most important choice for your career.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe that setting is entirely a choice.  Someone once asked me why I didn’t write contemporary romance.  I looked at them blankly for a moment and then answered “I don’t get any contemporary ideas.”  On some level, we are called to write in a particular setting.  But we must be conscious of all the implications.

So – what about character?

Setting is the fundamental character decision.  Your choice of setting will create your character and your character’s reaction to the setting will create the story.  Let me explain.

First, consider the place the character grew up.  Lawrence Durrell, one of my favorite writers, once said “I willingly admit to seeing ‘characters’ almost as functions of a landscape.”  That speaks to me.  Did your hero grow up on the Western plains where being a loner is prized, possibilities look endless, and re-invention is a way of life?  Or is he a nobleman surrounded by tidy gardens, servants to cater to his whims and bearing the weight of hundreds of years of family obligations?  Did she spend her life within the sound of the sea, the sight of the Empire State Building, or on a family farm?  The landscape will shape her (or him) deeply.

Second, setting, place AND time, creates backstory.  Did your character grow up during wartime or peacetime?  In the midst of plague or prosperity?  Conventional wisdom says that character is largely shaped by the age of ten.  Be sure you know what shaped your character’s early years.  I’ve written many stories set during the fourteenth century and I must always begin by asking what happened to my character’s family when the Black Death rolled across the land.

Finally, what is your character’s relation to the setting of the story itself?  Is your character at home or away from home?  In a situation s/he loves or one s/he hates?  Somewhere s/he wants to stay or from which s/he longs to escape?  The setting you choose symbolizes your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to that situation propels the story.

My current Brunson Clan trilogy is set on the Scottish Borders during the early Tudor era.  In the first book, the youngest son comes home for the first time in years, someplace he does NOT want to be.  In the second book, the daughter leaves the home she loves to go to court, a place where she is a “fish out of water.”  The third book takes place back in the home valley, where the oldest son has always lived and where he must come to terms with his new role as the head of the family.  This makes each a very different story, although the family, landscape, and time period are consistent.

I hope I’ve sparked some reasons for you to put setting at the top of your list as you consider your next project. 


Cover_COTBL_WebCAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD is Book Two of The Brunson Clan trilogy. 


Bessie, the selfless sister of the powerful but stubborn Brunson clan, has sacrificed herself for her family’s honor and is at the mercy of the court of King James. Ill-suited to court life, she must confront their mortal enemy, Lord Thomas Carwell, dressed in nothing but borrowed finery and pride.

Underneath the relentless gaze of her captor, she’s enticed not only by him but also by the opulence of a world far removed from her own. When the furious king demands her brother’s head, Carwell is the only one to whom she can turn. But she must pay the ultimate price for his protection….

text here


So, what IS the setting of your current work in progress?

Join us on Wednesday for Oliver Rhodes and The importance of feedback: and how it can make you a better author.


Bio: Blythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, launced a trilogy set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era, starting with RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, November 2012, Harlequin Historical.  CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD will follow in January 2013, and TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL in March 2013.  The Chicago Tribune has called her work “the perfect balance between history and romance.”  Visit her at,, or on Twitter @BlytheGifford.

Author photo by Jennifer Girard.  Cover Art Copyright © 2013 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited.  Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.

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29 Responses to “Setting – The First, Most Crucial Choice for your Career AND your Character – Blythe Gifford”

  1. Excellent read! Setting is one of the first things I think about when I’m working on an idea. And it really does shape the whole story. I really admire those who write historicals, because while I love to read them, the idea of writing one is daunting. The exception being a historical about the tribes of the Plains in North America. My current WIP is a contemporary set in the town where I went to college. The heroine is working hard to get through school and get out of town.

    Posted by Stephanie | January 28, 2013, 12:26 am
  2. Hi Blythe,

    I’ve been a fan since the Knave and the Maiden. Your books bring the past to life. A truly delightful historical read. And your Brunson Clan covers are gorgeous!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 28, 2013, 6:46 am
  3. I agree with Stephanie; as a contemporary writer, the idea of writing a historical daunts me, just as asking me to write science fiction would. And like you said, I don’t get ideas for historical or sci-fi settings.

    In my latest, a YA romance, the setting is a suburb of Philadelphia. The female main character is the Chief of Police and protective of his daughter and their small town. Yet, Violet (MC), can only follow her dream by moving to the city after graduation, a place her father has conditioned her to be fearful of.

    Posted by Mary | January 28, 2013, 8:49 am
    • Correction:

      The female main character is the Chief of Police’s daughter, who is protective of her and their small town. Yet, Violet (MC), can only follow her dream by moving to the city after graduation, a place her father has conditioned her to be fearful of.

      Posted by Mary | January 28, 2013, 8:50 am
      • But as a writer of contemporary settings, you still have to research! Or someone in some suburb of Philadelphia will point out your errors! Is this a real town or one you’ve invented?

        Posted by Blythe Gifford | January 28, 2013, 9:51 am
        • I’m familiar with Philadelphia, and New Jersey (the ‘burbs). The town is a real place, Cinnaminson, NJ. While I kept the name, because I liked the way it sounded and the location in proximity to Philly, I’ve never been there and I created the setting through my own imagination. Such as, fictional restaurants, streets, etc. Is this unacceptable?

          Posted by Mary | January 28, 2013, 10:01 am
  4. Morning Blythe!

    Wonderful to have you here…I’ve been a huge fan for many years as well. And i agree – I LOVE reading historicals, but the prospect of writing one? no!!! But I do appreciate those of you who make those worlds come alive for us!

    My current WIP’s…one is set in small town Iowa, where I’ve lived forever and the other is on a small island in the Bahamas where I’ve never been. Research, research, research! =)

    Your paragraph about how the Brunson clan views their setting really hits home with me. My small town heroine has moved to the big city and does NOT want to be at home again, so everything that *I* would think is quaint and perfect about small town life, she would find smothering and limiting.

    Thanks for a great article!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 28, 2013, 9:03 am
    • Thanks, Carrie! (Doesn’t the Bahamas rate a research trip? *Grin*)
      You’ve pegged an important point. You need to see/describe your setting as your character sees it. In this case, showing the quaint and perfect aspects as limiting/unchanging/boring, whatever. You’re not taking an objective photograph – you’re seeing it through the character’s emotional lens.

      Posted by Blythe Gifford | January 28, 2013, 9:55 am
  5. Hi, Blythe! Great post. I think I always think about setting in terms of my character’s personality. For my current release, I knew I wanted my heroine to be strong and sassy so I thought the perfect place for her would be New York. I had such fun with her on the street sassing people.

    Thanks for being here.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 28, 2013, 10:15 am
  6. “On some level, we are called to write in a particular setting.”

    This is a very thought-provoking comment, Blythe. I had never considered it quite that way but the same way you don’t get contemporary ideas, I ONLY set my stories in the present day. I love history, I just wouldn’t want to live any time but now.

    Thanks for a great post! You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 28, 2013, 12:23 pm
  7. Great blog. I so agree with you. I tend to select an interesting setting first and then imagine what kind of story might take place within that setting. This way the setting becomes an integral part of the story, almost another character.

    Posted by Averil Reisman | January 28, 2013, 1:44 pm
  8. Hi Blythe!

    Fifty percent of research for my stories is on the setting. Weather patterns, population demographics, and things like types of restaurants and businesses. I check out local papers on-line and real estate listings in hopes that I can create a realistic setting.

    Setting as backstory is important, too. A character’s outlook is often shaped by where they grew up, so I try to include some details of their early years.

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 28, 2013, 3:45 pm
  9. Oh, weather in historical settings is SUCH a challenge! Also, you cannot assume anything about flora and fauna. Rapeweed, which now covers the hills on the Scottish Borders, was not introduced until after the period of my story. So glad I discovered that…

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | January 28, 2013, 3:52 pm
  10. Blythe…thanks SO much for posting with us today! You’ve delighted some long time fans and certainly got us thinking of how to use our setting!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 28, 2013, 8:18 pm
  11. Blythe thank you. I write urban fantasy so you’ve pointed out a major fact I need to keep in mind. When I pick up a book by Jim Butcher I know what to expect. So for my future readers I need to make sure when they pick up my book my setting and characters reflect and meet their expectations.

    Posted by Yasmine | January 28, 2013, 8:51 pm
  12. I write contemporary, and use the area where I grew up for my setting. I still had to do a good amount of research!

    Like others, I enjoy historical romances, but can’t imagine writing one. I’ll check out your site.

    Posted by Laurie Evans | January 28, 2013, 9:08 pm
  13. Informative post. I agree setting is important.


    Posted by bn100 | January 28, 2013, 11:23 pm
  14. I guess that’s why I’m having trouble writing a contemporary….I don’t get ideas unless they are medieval characters in VERY specific settings. Enlightening Blythe and I am excited about the prospect of reading your series. Love Tudor era and highlanders. My preferred settings include the Tudors, highlanders, Vikings, Celts, Afred’s reign, Shakespeare’s tenure. Oh, I could go on, but I did experience an epiphany when I read your lesson…setting IS important. And I’m not the only one who loves to live in a very particular one. Thanks!

    Posted by Debi Rogers | January 29, 2013, 11:46 am
  15. Blythe,
    Your post made me think about setting. My current wip is about someone with a repressed childhood and it is set in a small town with a claustrophobic feel. Past efforts have had other settings, but I see now how it influenced my characters. Something that was subconcious will now be in the forefront of my mind. Thanks.
    By the way, in Scotland, I think what you called rapeweed we call rapeseed.

    Posted by dawn in NL | January 29, 2013, 3:57 pm
    • Ah, thanks for the correction. Must admit that once I knew it was not going to be in my book, the details left my mind.
      Sometimes, being able to consciously use those writing tools can help take the book to the next level. Hope it helps!

      Posted by Blythe Gifford | January 29, 2013, 4:50 pm

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