Posted On July 22, 2016 by Print This Post

How To Vividly Describe a Setting That You’ve Never Visited by Angela Ackerman

Woohoo! Angela Ackerman is back in the house with another fabulous post! Do not miss this one!

Angela AckermanOne of the big decisions writers are faced with is whether to choose a real location for the backdrop of their overall story, or create one of their own imagining. Crafting a world from scratch is a lot of work (requiring a deep understanding of the society, infrastructure, rules, governmental influence, as well as a million other details). But it also avoids a big problem associated with real-world locations: reader bias. This is when the reader’s own emotional ties to a place influence their reading experience.

Imagine your character is living in a neighborhood that a reader grew up in. Even if you carefully researched the setting, perhaps visited it yourself, people and places still change over time. Stores close, schools are torn down. Streets are renamed. Readers will expect the story world to match what they remember, and this isn’t always the case, causing a ripple in their reading experience.

Bias aside, there are many great reasons to place your story in the real world. Readers can slip into the action easier when they understand it takes place in Chicago or Amsterdam because they recognize these areas and can fill in blanks as far as how “big picture” society works.

So, let’s say you do decide to go with a real world location. Ideally, a road trip is in order, right? Maybe. Is it close enough to travel to? Do you have the budget for it? If so, go for it! There’s nothing better than getting first hand sensory detail, which is why most of the 225 settings Becca and I profiled in the Urban and Rural Setting Thesaurus books we visited in person. But, travel isn’t always in the cards (or the wallet.) And if it isn’t, we need to dig in and research to ensure we get the details right.

3 Basic Real-World “Biggies” To Nail Down For Any Location

The Setting Thesaurus DuoClimate and Seasons: As we all know, any location looks different season to season. Climate influences everything: the flora and fauna, what people wear, the types of buildings, you name it. Understanding the temperature, humidity (if it’s a factor) and local weather is important, especially when writing about a location that is vastly different than what you’ve personally experienced. Which leads us to…

Topography: The type of landforms tied to your location are a big part of the story. Urban or Rural, knowing natural (trees, rivers, plants, etc.) or manmade (buildings, infrastructure) elements creates realism. And, researching the different features and dangers inherent to a landscape will help you turn your setting into an obstacle course, creating conflict and blocking the protagonist from his or her goal.

Social Issues, Language, and Culture: The people who live in a real-world location influence the shape and structure of it (colors, styles, government, local events, food, entertainment, modes of travel, etc.). Slang, customs, gender roles, religion, and dress will likely be unique to this area. For example, at the height of summer you might be tempted to have your characters slide on flip flops on their way out the door. But, if they live in a rugged mountain town with a strong culture of active living, they’d more likely wear light hiking shoes or treaded sandals, footwear suited to the activities people here engage in. Local readers would know this and expect the author to as well. If we skimp on research, or make blanket assumptions, we can break the reader’s trust.

Angela’s Favorite Setting Research Bookmarks

We know what information to dig for, so now it’s about doing it. Here are some of my favorite sources for setting detail.

You Tube: Some settings Becca and I couldn’t see firsthand, either because they were too dangerous, off limits (AKA trespassing), or too far away. You tube was invaluable. If you have a specific place in mind, run a search and pair it with “tour” or “walkthrough.” Often, you’ll find just what you need, straight from a local’s perspective.

Travel Photography Sites: When people travel, they take pictures. Finding forums and sites where people share photos and the stories of their encounters is a great way to get authentic detail.

Pinterest: Is there anything Pinterest can’t do? I don’t think so! Type in your location and see what pops up. Even better if you can pair it with an activity that ties into your book. For example, I typed in “Ohio Camping” and all kinds of detail gold came up.

National Centers For Environmental Information: This site is great for accessing the weather and temperature for different areas and is especially helpful for US locations.

National Geographic Interactive Maps: You can find a lot of statistical information about different parts of the world from this site—give it a whirl!

Google Earth: Street view can show you a lot of extras that help fill in the blanks when it comes to a particular setting.

The World Culture Encyclopedia: A big stumbling block can be understanding the culture and customs of a specific group of people. This site is a lifesaver. Also, try this one as well.

Movie Locations Database: Wouldn’t it be great to see real world locations through the lens of a movie camera? You can, with this database! Type in the location you wish to write about and all the movies filmed there will display in a list. Pop some popcorn, grab a pad of paper, and take yourself to the movies.

The Setting Thesaurus: Becca and I investigated 225 different setting locations and gathered the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures associated with each so you know what your character may encounter and use our sensory detail to bring readers deeper into your story. Ancient Ruins, a Police Car, a House Party, an Antiques Shop…the detail for these and other locations will give you a big head start on painting a vivid canvas for your audience. (This thesaurus is also at One Stop For Writers, along with a Weather Thesaurus and many others, cross referenced for quicker searching.)

What are your favorite resources? Let me know in the comments!


Don’t forget to join us next week for more amazing romance writing tips!


Bio: Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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19 Responses to “How To Vividly Describe a Setting That You’ve Never Visited by Angela Ackerman”

  1. This kind of thing often bogs me down. Not so much the location itself, but the “rules” for that location. I wanted to write a story that featured a local police station. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to invent a town or adapt a real life town. The problem with the real life police station is that those have specific boundaries and various things I was afraid would wreck the story for readers if I got something wrong. I ended up letting the story gather dust because these details were driving me nuts. Thanks for a great post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 22, 2016, 10:15 am
    • I know what you mean–sometimes I want to write a story in another country and it seems like there’s going to be a massive amount of research needed to get it right, but then I realize just how easy it is to get information about a specific plac, and how the writing community is always so ready to help. Grabbing a beta reader or two from that area helps me ensure the detail is authentic, and choosing an imaginary town in a real country is a great halfway point to allow some room to tailor the settings to what I need for the story. Glad this post helps!

      Posted by Angela Ackerman | July 22, 2016, 10:50 am
  2. In my current WiP, I have two major locations that are real. One I don’t know much about except what an aunt and an uncle have told me in the past. The other one I’ve been to but just to spend the night in a hotel. Still, I’m comfortable with these two areas. With the help of online maps and websites maintained by the government of the locations, I feel I know these towns adequately. Of course, both places are within my own country so the culture angle is minor.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | July 22, 2016, 10:24 am
  3. One problem I’ve encountered is that knowing too much about an area can be just as problematic as not knowing it at all. I tried to write about Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky when I was living there. I got bogged down with stupid details, like the fact that the Cincinnati airport is actually in Kentucky, and some of the best restaurants/night life are in Kentucky, too. I have since come across authors who wrote about this area without making it too complicated, but it drove me insane!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 22, 2016, 10:35 am
  4. I can sympathize with this–sometimes as we attempt to get all the details just so, the voice of the story is lost. Sometimes having another reader look through it (especially a writer) can help us see where we’ve gone to far. Sometimes a detail seems important to us, but it doesn’t further the story, so we can cut and move on.

    This is why we want to strive to do more with our details, not just “showing” the setting, but also characterizing our cast, or creating the mood, or allowing backstory windows, or steering the plot, revealing emotion, generating conflict, testing the protagonist…or a host of other things. 🙂 Description has its own high-value currency, but only when it doesn’t slow the plot or bore the reader.

    Thanks for reading!

    Posted by Angela Ackerman | July 22, 2016, 10:56 am
  5. I used Google Maps and Google Earth extensively to plot my novel, LEAD ME HOME, which follows a wagon train along the Oregon Trail in 1847. It’s amazing how many roads are still labeled “Emigrant Trail” and the like. Of course, I had to be careful about what urban developments had usurped the trail sites, but I could identify many creeks, campsites, and other landmarks mentioned in diaries of the pioneers to Oregon.

    Posted by Theresa Hupp | July 22, 2016, 1:31 pm
  6. Great ideas and resources, Angela! I had never consisted some of those factors before and even my fantasy is set in the real world. Thanks!

    Posted by Talena Winters | July 22, 2016, 3:08 pm
  7. Hi Angela,

    Welcome back!

    I love researching locations and creating fictional places. I’ve used most of the sources you cited. I like checking out Yelp reviews on restaurants, diners, and places like a burger joint that are popular with locals. Maybe it’s the foodie in me, but I think regional food choices add some authenticity to the story.

    Local real estate sites, or even Zillow, provide insight on neighborhoods and types of houses. I go overboard most of the time. Research is fun, but I’m also afraid of getting the facts wrong.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 22, 2016, 3:36 pm
  8. Evening Angela!

    Great post as always. =) I once tried to write a New York setting, using Google maps and street view. I know how the houses looked, the traffic, etc, but then realized I knew nothing about the PEOPLE that lived there….=) oops.

    If you “make up” a neighborhood in a real town, is that a no-no? Do people that live in that town and read your book accept it as a made up place?

    thanks again, great post!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | July 22, 2016, 11:23 pm
    • Hi Carrie, I think it depends on how big the town/city is. A very small town location is probably not ideal to create an entirely new neighborhood, but a larger place I think you have a bit more flexibility to do this.

      Posted by Angela Ackerman | July 24, 2016, 5:37 pm
  9. I’ve several times read a novel and the story lost all credibility for me because the author had chosen a setting s/he clearly didn’t know.

    As a German living in Britain, it pains me when (mostly American) authors get either country very wrong.

    I recall a historical romance in which the heroine stood on the wild Cornish cliffs of Scotland. Uh-uh. A quick look at a map would have told this author that Scotland and Cornwall, while both parts of Britain, are very different locations.

    And then there was the novel in which a professor was growing peach trees in his orchard in Yorkshire. That writer should have a done a bit of climate research.

    Another author had the British heroine walk about with a pearl-handled pistol in her purse. Apart from the little detail that a purse in Britain is something quite different, British citizens don’t carry guns. There is no such thing as a license to carry in this country. Not even for pearl-handled pistols.

    And the Germany errors… argh. Like the one where the wine connoisseur orders a Liebfraumilch. Ugh. Liebfraumilch is the stuff the Germans export because they don’t drink it themselves. Well, they drink it, but it’s cheap stuff, not something a connoisseur orders in a top restaurant. A bit of research – like talking to an actual connoisseur, or even a wine-drinking German – would have avoided that blunder.

    Or the historical novel where the Bavarian matron wears a dirndl and a hat topped with big red woollen balls. Ahem. The hat with the woollen balls is part of the traditional costume in a particular region of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) – it was not worn in Bayern (Bavaria). Moreover, the red balls signified maidens, while married women’s hats had black balls. Apparently, that author had done her research by looking at picture postcards of Germany.

    Yes, and there was the novel set on the famous vegetable-growing island of Mainau with its historical churches. Except that the famous vegetable-growing island with historical churches on Lake Constance is Reichenau. Mainau Island is a famous flower-growing tourism island. The writer had muddled up the two Lake Constance islands.

    I’ll stop here before this develops into a rant! 😀

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | July 30, 2016, 3:49 pm
    • haha, I know what you mean–here in Canada I see lots of these blunders too. And, it drives me nuts when on TV all Canadians say “aboot” bot “about.” I know a small localized part of the population does, but I have yet to run into a single Canadian who says this.

      “And the Germany errors… argh. Like the one where the wine connoisseur orders a Liebfraumilch. Ugh. Liebfraumilch is the stuff the Germans export because they don’t drink it themselves. Well, they drink it, but it’s cheap stuff, not something a connoisseur orders in a top restaurant.” I’ve also heard this said about the beer “Stella” as here it is marketed as a trendy, upscale beer but Germans have laughed saying they wouldn’t give that to their worst enemy. It’s interesting, but yes, correct details are so important!

      Posted by Angela Ackerman | August 2, 2016, 10:43 am
  10. If you describe the contents of every inch of that restaurant kitchen, it will be information overload.  Readers cannot hold an infinite number of details in their mind at the same time. Okay, now what if I tell you that the room is a restaurant kitchen?  Did your mental picture just change?

    Posted by Walter Stimus | August 26, 2016, 2:35 am


  1. […] 4. Here’s a useful post by Angela Ackerman at Romance University for all of us who struggle with setting: How To Vividly Describe a Setting That You’ve Never Visited. […]

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