It's More Than A Place: Creating Settings (and Building Worlds) That Matter (Joy Preble)

We're talking about world building this month and so it's a good time to talk about setting, which is one of my favorite craft bits to teach, especially to newbie writers. As the title of the post state, setting is more than place. Setting is the when and where, but it's also the social norms and mores, the psychology of a place, the exact historical moment, the language, the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches. It's the climate, the geography and pretty much everything else. Basically, setting provides the social, intellectual and emotional context for your story. It both affects the characters and is a reflection upon them.

My SWEET DEAD LIFE series is set in Texas, specifically in the northern suburbs of Houston. If you have never been this is a world of enormous high school football stadiums mega churches, Olive Garden and other chain restaurants, strip malls and an endless landscape of suburban sameness , matching trash cans and mall culture, and an often aggressive artificial nature, such as suburbs with  town centers designed to look like they've been there for decades when actually they were built last year. 
(No offense to the suburbs. I live in one. But I'm also conscious of the weirdness of the whole thing)

Setting SDL in this specific place meant that I could use the setting in interesting and hopefully clever ways in this book about a very unlikely guardian angel, a global mystery, and a 14 year old feisty girl narrator who wants her life to calm the heck the down but isn’t likely to get that any time soon.

Setting SDL here meant I could juxtapose a world that often seems to believe it has a clear expectation about good and evil about life and death and the afterlife—this world of those mega churches and 4thof July parades where the local Democratic party frequently gets booed by families in camp chairs on the side of the road, of elaborate Christmas decorations and prayers before football games and letters to the editor in the local papers that rail against godless public schools with a real life angel who still likes to smoke a bit too much weed, lives with his sister, and mentally unstable mother in a run down tract home and possibly is performing miracles right before their eyes even though he is in their estimation, the last person they’d expect to do so. It allows me to explore my fascination with those who are chronically underestimated by placing them against this specific setting and through the specific prism of narrator Jenna Samuels, who is a product of her world at the same time as she wants desperately to leave it.

For example, just before their crappy Prius crashes – an accident brought on by Casey rushing ailing Jenna to the hospital in a car already ruined by Casey’s stoner pal Dave, and one that will result not in the death of dying Jenna but of her older brother Casey—Jenna observes: “Casey says we made it to our exit. Apparently we were racing along the feeder road to the hospital about a mile down. (Just to paint the full picture: we passed Woodhaven Cemetery, Houston North Rehab, and a strip center that housed a spinal surgery facility with a prosthesis clinic attached, a Vietnamese noodle house, Café Monterrey Mexican restaurant, and Stacy Carrigan Legal. In the Texas suburbs we like to cover all bases. If the ER or the rehab couldn’t fix you, at least they didn’t have to cart you far. After that, your loved ones could get a bite to eat and chat about who they could sue.)”

And since the novel is set in December, there is also this, with their neighbors the Gilroys once Jenna realizes that Casey actually died in the accident and has come back as her guardian angel, a task he knows shockingly little about, an opportunity to juxtapose a real angel against the Gilroy’s holiday décor, as seen through Jenna’s jaded eyes:

“The Gilroys were hanging up their Christmas lights when we locked up the house and climbed into the Merc. Mr. Gilroy, dressed in Dickies overalls and a tan Henley shirt, was perched on a ladder, screwing in bulbs. I saw that they hadd already decorated their yard with a manger scene and two lit-up full-sized angels. Maybe once they got them plugged in, Casey could go stand in the middle.
         Mrs. Gilroy hot-footed it across the strip of grass between our houses, a tangled extension cord clutched in her hands. ‘That looks like Nell Pittman’s car,’ she observed. She wore black velour pants and a button-down red Christmas sweater with Santa heads all over it. A white pom-pom sat at the top of each Santa hat.”

So Jenna, with a real angel at her side, observes this world where she lives, a world where ugly Christmas sweaters are NOT worn ironically.

Thus again, it’s not just about being accurate and descriptive. It’s about seeing the world through the character’s POV, through how this particular girl sees Houston and her life.

Likewise, in my YA contemporary FINDING PARIS, the aggressively artificial Vegas setting allows me to hint at the terrible things that are hiding under Leo Hollings’ life by showing rather than just telling. In this spare, contemporary novel, every bit of setting becomes crucial and admittedly requires readers to move past the stereotypical vision of Vegas as glittery fun.

So Leo tells us, “East of the Strip, a group of girls in short, brightly colored dresses wrapping their skinny bodies like bandages pose in front of the Hard Rock Hotel was we cross Paradise, a naked blow-up man doll hoisted over their heads.”

There’s a lot going on in that sentence if you choose to see it, including a reference to east of Paradise.

Not long after, there’s this:
“Elvis is guarding the Heartbreak Hotel Diner as we chug up. He’s the older, chunkier, gold lame Elvis—all those fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and probably the drugs having taken their toll. If you’re going to build a twenty-four-hour diner three miles off the Vega Strip, in between a Rite Aid Pharmacy and a massage parlor, you’d think you would go for a young Elvis.”

Leo’s observations about the seedier side of Vegas, about the dreams not quite come true, give us –hopefully- some clues and insights into her and the secrets she is holding and the hopes and dreams that she feels she may never get. The way she sees the world serves as a prism to the way she sees herself.

World building therefore means I better be very clear on where my characters exist, how they fit in this setting, and what my writerly intentions are for both!


  1. Yes! Setting isn't just backdrop; it's something characters interact with!


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