How to make a setting come alive

From the very beginning, I knew that I wanted my novel Dark City to have a very strong sense of place. I wanted the city to be alive, like Camorr or The Shire or Sin City in the graphic novel series. I wanted my book to have a noir aesthetic, a kind of Gotham vibe. So I spent a lot of time developing the city in my mind, so I could better express it on the page. These are a few techniques that worked really well for me.

Visit it, or somewhere like it

Admittedly, this is easier for some novels than others. Those of you writing about beautiful elven cities suspended from the trees might have a little difficulty finding a real world equivalent, but even little things can lead to great inspiration. When I went to Seattle for a weekend, one of the things I noticed was how many people there were on the sidewalks at once, and how close together everyone had to stand and walk. That sense of proximity was very strange to someone who grew up in a small town, and it made me perceive cities in a way I hadn’t before. At night in Seattle, it was never quiet, and there was a fog hugging the ground, trapping and refracting the light from thousands of streetlights so all through the night a dim orange glow kept the darkness at bay. That image still lingers for me, and inspired a lot of the play on light and dark in my own setting.


Film noir helped inspire the settings I came up with.

Use sensory descriptions

To really make a setting immersive, you have to use all the senses. A historical novel might rely on the sound of horses clomping down the street and their musky scent to convey the era in which it is set. Personally I use the scent of the nearby bay, the sound of neighbors through the thin wall in a cheap apartment building, or the unnatural silence that heralds danger.

Make it relevant to the story

I believe a setting should suit the story it belongs to, unless you’re trying to make a statement with the contrast. Dark City is a story about light and dark, good and evil, and the shadows and shades of gray between. I felt like the noir aesthetic communicated this intent really well, and in addition, it’s just cool. So I rely on a lot of imagery like smoke drifting from a cigarette in a crime boss’s hand, the way light plays on the amber colored bourbon in a glass tumbler, the red of a beautiful woman’s lips and the sanguine spatter of blood on a sidewalk.

An epic story relies on an epic setting, a whole world that feels real and dangerous and immediate. If you are writing a Lord of the Rings, you will need a Middle Earth. But there are other types of stories that thrive in other settings. My story is an intimate one, small in scope but deep, and the setting is made of intimate spaces and small details.

Creating a setting that lives and breathes isn’t easy, and it will take some deliberate practice to cultivate the atmosphere in your mind, which is essential to getting it down on the page. If you want to see someone pull this off splendidly, check out The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. If you want to see how I did it, my novel Dark City comes out July 30th, 2018, and I’ll put a buy link here when it does. In the meantime, you can read about it here, and sign up for my mailing list.

Photo of Ann Savage by: Publicity still taken for the film. (Film Noir Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Night in Seattle by Newcombe Publishing Company, NY for Seattle City Light [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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