Posted On March 17, 2014 by Print This Post

Mary Buckham presents: What is ACTIVE SETTING and Why it Should Matter to YOU!

Your story’s setting is much more than a GPS reading for your reader. Author and workshop guru extraordinaire, Mary Buckham, explains why setting plays a substantial role in enhancing a reader’s experience.

Welcome, Mary!  

Let’s make this simple. Learning how to write is not the easiest game to play, but once you have the basics down—POV, plot, pacing, characterization—the fine-tuning should be easier. Right?


But it doesn’t have to be—hard that is. Most of us have not been trained to maximize Setting in our work so either we ‘get it’ or we don’t. I wrote the WRITING ACTIVE SETTING books so no writer has to stumble through or beat themselves over the head because they don’t ‘get it’.

It’s not rocket science. The craft techniques can be learned.

As I worked with writers all over the world on their own manuscripts I kept seeing folks struggling with how to use Setting without killing their pacing or making a reader want to skip the boring stuff and get on with the story. Time and again the same mistakes kept cropping up—Setting description that wasn’t moving the story forward, that created chunks of narrative which slows pacing, missing Setting so characters were free-floating in space—and the list went on.

Let’s look at just three of the ways to maximize your Setting details instead of letting them trip up your readers. MaryBuckham_WritingActiveSettingBook4_800px

* You need to create the world of your story.

* Each character in your story experiences the story world differently.

* Your story world involves more than one sense.

But, you’re thinking, you’re not writing an Urban Fantasy or Sci Fi novel. Doesn’t matter, your role as a writer is to create the world of your story so that the reader not only sees it, but experiences every important detail, regardless of what you’re writing.

Let’s revisit that word ‘important’. The details you choose to share must matter. (Yes, I’m hammering home this point.)

Do not focus your reader on something that is not pertinent to your story. Why? Because you’re wasting an opportunity to make your Setting work harder. Too much narrative, which is what Setting is in large chunks, slows your pacing.

You are not just working with objects in space—you’re creating a world. When we make characters interact with the space they’re in, we can make those few words work as more than just descriptors and turn them into ways the reader can get a grasp on the world as the character experiences it.

Your Character’s perceptions of your story world are what matters in your novel. You’re not writing about any living room, any small town, any large city; you are writing about a specific living room, a specific small town, a specific large city and why those Settings matter to your character.

Mary BuckhamIf the details don’t add to the story, leave them out. Every word choice you’re making in your story focuses the reader on what you intend to focus them on. Don’t waste this focus on trivial details.

Think of you as the author focusing the reader on what’s key about the world Setting of your POV character and then bring that information to life through your word choices, the details, and how you thread these details together.

Filter the Setting through one character’s experience, emotions and mindset at a time.

Sensory detail is one of the most underrated tools in a writer’s toolbox and can make a world of difference in creating novels that stand out in a reader’s mind.

Not every Setting needs all five senses described in detail—that approach is overkill and can have a major impact on your story pacing, not to mention overwhelming the reader with TMI (too much information). But when introducing the reader to a character, or changing the location of the story, or focusing a reader in on a place that’s going to play a larger role in the story, then by all means dig deeper to create a strong Setting image. And a key way to do this is via sensory details.

Change the time and emotional state of the POV character and you should notice a difference in which sensory details are being noticed.

Pull your reader deeper into the world of your story by allowing them to feel the temperature, smell the cut grass, hear the roar of a motorcycle but not any motorcycle, a Cagiva V589 (but only if this detail matters to the POV character), taste the brine of the seashore. There’s a wealth of details that can make a difference between a ho-hum manuscript and a killer one.

The really amazing thing about writing active Setting is that once you understand how to use the concepts it can take your writing to the next level in the blink of an eye. Don’t trust me, trust what other writers have said in their comments at Amazon and Goodreads. The links are below to make it easy for you to check out the feedback.

So what about you? Do you find writing Setting a struggle or piece of cake? Any tips to share with other writers that you’ve found useful?

Author Kris Bock joins us on Wednesday, March 19th.


WritingActiveSettingBundle_reflectionReaders usually remember the plot and characters of a story, but setting is every bit as important in creating a memorable world. Novel writing can be enjoyable once you’ve mastered a few of the writing skills necessary to bring a story to life.

If you’re tired of your Setting descriptions being ho-hum and are ready to create a compelling story world, regardless of what you write, or your current level of writing skills,  the WRITING ACTIVE SETTING series is for you!

BioMary Buckham doesn’t just teach, she practices what she preaches as a USA Today bestselling author of the WRITING ACTIVE SETTING series (in e-format and now in book form) as well as Urban Fantasy w/attitude. Love romance, danger & kick-ass heroines? Find it in her Invisible Recruits series or her YA Red Moon series written with NYT author Dianna Love under the name Micah Caida. To learn more about Mary, visit her website or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads





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19 Responses to “Mary Buckham presents: What is ACTIVE SETTING and Why it Should Matter to YOU!”

  1. Great blog. Shared it with my writing students.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | March 17, 2014, 7:34 am
  2. Wonderful post, Mary. I struggle with setting. It doesn’t come natural for me like say, dialogue, but your setting books were recommended to me and I must say, they’ve made a world of difference to me!

    After reading your books, I “get” it. I still struggle and I confess I sometimes leave it until the polishing stages but at least now I understand how to use setting and how important it is.


    Posted by Carol Opalinski | March 17, 2014, 8:09 am
    • Hi Carol!

      Delighted you’ve already found a way to ratchet up your own Setting descriptions. Gold stars you! Great news is it doesn’t matter if you power up your Settings first draft or last ~ what does matter is that you do. So way to go!

      Thank you for the kind feedback and for swinging by today!

      Cheers ~ Mary B 🙂

      Posted by Mary Buckham | March 17, 2014, 10:59 am
  3. Morning Mary..

    I have all of your books, and use them! I’m one of those people who write their characters into a vast land of nothingness, then go back in and fill in details. But coloring the setting, so to speak, from a certain character’s point of view makes a lot of difference.

    Great post, great books!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | March 17, 2014, 8:54 am
    • Hi Carrie!

      Love your description of writing characters into vast nothingness. That’s actually very common because when we write we can be so into our writing that we assume the reader can see what’s we’re seeing. I do that with clothes and characters. I assume the reader knows they are in clothes and not racing around buck naked but I always have to remind myself to dress them . Isn’t writing a hoot!

      Thanks for sharing and delighted that you enjoyed the books!

      Cheers ~ Mary B 🙂

      Posted by Mary Buckham | March 17, 2014, 11:02 am
  4. I really like what you said about how each character experiences the story world differently. It makes the setting itself more like an additional character that each of the others interacts with in their own individualized way, and it’s easy to see how that can increase reader engagement with a book.

    Posted by Lori Schafer | March 17, 2014, 9:54 am
    • Hi Lori!

      It’s fun how approaching at a subject like Setting can be changed in the blink of an eye simply by looking at it in a different way. The first book I have in the Writing Active Setting is an e-book. Quick and easy to read and I priced it at $2.99 so it’s affordable. It delves into characterization and setting in a lot more detail so you may want to check it out. The green book in the image in this blog also contains that info and info from all the 3 smaller books too, so there’s a wealth of info available now on how to look, understand and write Setting to really make a different in your work.
      Thanks for swinging past today and sharing!
      Cheers ~ Mary B 🙂

      Posted by Mary Buckham | March 17, 2014, 11:07 am
  5. Our entire writers group (Cambridge Writers) purchased and studied Mary’s Writing Active Setting Books 1-3 last fall and its help us immensely. The books have open an entire new world and depth to our writings.

    Posted by J. Paulette Forshey | March 17, 2014, 12:46 pm
    • Paulette ~ You’re very smart to belong to a group of writers willing to challenge themselves to take their writing to the next level. The more we can surround ourselves with writers willing to grow and expand in their understanding of the craft, and the business of writing, the stronger all will be!
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing today ~ Mary B 🙂

      Posted by Mary Buckham | March 17, 2014, 12:58 pm
    • Hi Mary! So sorry I’m late getting in here, but wanted to comment on how much I’ve learned by studying your books in our group. You have a way with breaking down a scene to bare bones then building it back up, layer by layer until the reader feels they’re in the middle of it. You make it seem so easy…now if I can just practice it! 🙂

      Posted by PS Ritchey | March 18, 2014, 7:50 am
      • Hi PS! How fun that you swung by and I’m delighted your writing group are learning about Setting and using the group approach – makes the changes you’ll see in other’s writing easier to start incorporating into your own. Initially any new learned skill is going to feel stiff and awkward, as if you’ll never get it. But the more you use the approach, either in first draft or the revision stage of your work, the easier it’ll be to own it. I remember having to really dig deep and study conflict. I just didn’t seem to get it, or apply it consistently. Now it’s really, really hard to NOT write conflict.
        Keep up the great work and thanks for posting!
        Cheers ~ Mary B 🙂

        Posted by Mary Buckham | March 18, 2014, 10:03 am
  6. Hi Mary,

    I catch myself going from one extreme to another, from white room syndrome to passages that have a character mentally cataloging everything they see. I’ll pound out the long-winded description and then delete (save in the junkyard) those details that can be exploited later in the story.

    Your mention of the Caviga V589 motorcycle is another reminder of how a character sees the world, so here’s my two cent tip. In a man’s POV, he sees a big window covered with puffy drapes (unless he’s a decorator or knows more about window treatments than Martha Stewart). In a woman’s POV, she sees silk dupioni balloon shades perched over paned windows that were original to the house.

    Great to have you with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 17, 2014, 3:11 pm
    • Jennifer ~ love what you shared! So true. Plus women tend to speak and thus think in more abstract ways then men, unless the subject matters to her. So a woman can say to another woman, “Can you hand me that thingy over by the you know what?” and another woman can translate what’s been said. A man would say,”can you hand me that pan over by the stove.” But for either sex what matters to them is going to be referenced in specific instead of general details. Thinking about Setting this way helps a writer get into deeper POV.
      Thanks for sharing ~ Mary B 🙂

      Posted by Mary Buckham | March 17, 2014, 6:04 pm
    • Love the fact that gender and personality make characters “see” things differently. Sometimes, just to contrast personalities, I’ll have two characters look at the same object. It’s fun. 🙂

      Posted by Robyn LaRue | March 18, 2014, 2:24 pm
      • Nice way to show not tell Robyn! Which also is a way to filter in back story or conflict. One character can see/experience the Setting as threatening (the desert for example can be seen that way for someone not used to it) whereas another sees the same Setting as a refuge (wide open spaces, a bowl of light, a place to get lost in).
        Thanks for sharing ~ Mary B 🙂

        Posted by Mary Buckham | March 18, 2014, 2:42 pm
  7. Sorry I’m late, Mary – it’s been one of those days where the internet is NOT my friend. I did get online long enough to order your book, though – do you know if they will all be available as a boxed set in paperback? Thanks for an awesome post – I wish I had an eidetic memory or better yet, Dropbox for the Brain! Once I get into writing, I tend to forget everything I’ve learned. *bangs head on desk*

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 17, 2014, 11:12 pm
  8. Becke ~ How lovely to see you here! You’re not alone in getting focused when writing – I think it can be a good thing. That’s what revisions are for – catching up all the pesky details. Here’s some good news for you. The Boxed set that’s available as e-pub only is the exact same material as the print version under the same name and same green cover. It’s available via both Amazon and B&N – so you can return the e-version and pick up a print version if that works best for you!
    Hope this helps and thanks so much for taking time to post ~ you’re the best!
    Cheers ~ Mary B 🙂

    Posted by Mary Buckham | March 18, 2014, 12:49 am


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