Story settings not only encompasses “where” a story takes place but also “when” it takes place which could refer to the time of day, the day of the week, the month, the season, or even the year. Maybe your story takes place during a snowstorm at night in the year 2014. Or maybe it takes place during a snowstorm at night in 1814 or 2214. The change in year changes…everything. It’s still cold and dark, but potential shelters change, clothing changes, how they speak about the weather changes.
“When” basics to include in your setting:
- time of day
- day of the week
The other key elements you must include when you deal with the “when” of setting is the social context of the place which includes:
- major social events such as wars, political upheavals, or even holidays
- predominant attitudes
- the mood
- religions or religious beliefs
- political beliefs
The key to creating a setting for your story and tying time into your setting is to do it subtly.
Historical or Future Time Periods and Setting
Often the reason writers choose an historical or futuristic setting is because the social context is important to their characters and their plot. There’s a reason their story shouldn’t take place in the early 21st century. Perhaps the most fun (or most difficult) part of setting a story in another time period is the research this requires, especially if it’s in the past.
You must be both accurate and precise with your details. Here’s an example from Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. This is a great story about a girl during WWII who gets caught by the Nazi’s after her spy plane crashes in France. If you’ve never read historical fiction, try this one:
“Look at the timing, though. Maddie started flying in late October 1938…Hitler (you will notice I have thought better of my colorful descriptive terms for the Furher and carefully scratched them all out) invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and Britain declared war on Germany two days later. Maddie flew the practical test for her “A” license, the basic pilot’s license, six months before all civil aircraft were grounded in August. After that, most of those planes were taken into government service. Both of Dympna’s planes were requisitioned by the Air Ministry for communications, and she was mad as a cat about it” (27).
In a brief paragraph, the author addresses dates, historical events, and attitudes toward both Hitler and the British Air Ministry. We also get some information about the main character and how people spoke during that time period. Dympna is “mad as a cat” which is a phrase that was said in the 1930’s, not now. This passage reflects not only great research about the time period, but the author also ties the details in as part of the story, rather than as a long list of facts that scream “Hey, look, I researched my book!”
Contemporary Time Periods and Setting
In a contemporary setting, the details still need to be subtle. You want your reader to be able to picture and understand your setting without hitting them over the head with it. The best way to see how to do this is to look at some good examples.
Time of Day Example from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman:
“His shoes were black leather, and they were polished to such a shine that they looked like dark mirrors: you could see the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full. The real moon shone through the casement window. Its light was not bright, and it was diffused by the mist, but the man Jack would not need much light. The moonlight was enough” (9).
Wow – such a great passage. Notice that the only “dark” reference is to the man’s shoes which helps to create an ominous feel.
Weather Example from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs:
“It was a crisp and blustery day–the sun hiding behind giant cloudbanks only to burst out moments later and dapple the hills with spectacular rays of light–and I felt energized and hopeful” (77).
In this passage, the weather mirrors the main character’s excited mood. It’s a bright, sun-shiny day, and he’s ready for adventure, just like the sun.
Time Passing Example from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie:
“Seems like the cold would never go away and winter would be like the bottom of my feet but then it is gone in one night and in its place comes the sun so large and laughable” (114-115).
In one amazing sentence, Alexie takes us from a miserable cold winter to spring.
Sharing the time details in your story’s setting is probably not necessary for every single scene, but it does ground your scene and provide a context for your characters. You can read more about that here.
Social context is also important to a contemporary story depending on the story. If you’re writing a political thriller, then political attitudes will be important. If you’re writing a story about a school shooting, then current attitudes about gun laws will play a role.