Monday, April 4, 2011

Setting the Scene by Julie Klassen

Welcome to Manuscript Monday, dear readers. Annette here. Julie Klassen is today's guest author. She's here to discuss setting or what some have called story world and how best to include this in your writing. Enjoy!

Setting the Scene
by Julie Klassen

When recently asked to speak about setting at my local writers group, I thought, Why me? Setting is not something that comes easily to me. In fact it is something I’ve had to consciously work to improve. I’m the kind of writer who hears characters speaking in her head (my husband is worried), so I primarily write dialogue first. Then I have to go back and add action, setting, etc. But along the way, I’ve learned several tips that I’m happy to share.

I think of setting as the novel’s stage. Setting is one of the first things established when the curtain goes up on a play or a movie begins—it tells viewers where they are, when the story takes place, and something about the mood of the piece they are about to experience. Fiction readers need that information as well.

In my years as an editor, I’ve been surprised by how many manuscripts don’t give setting clues and readers are left to try to figure out where they are and who else is there with them, which distracts from the story. The good news is, this is easy to fix.

At a basic level, whenever you begin a chapter or new scene, answer these four questions:

1. Where is it; where are we?

2. When is it; when in the timeline is this, in relation to the previous scene?

3. Which character’s point of view are we in?

4. Who is here? (You’d be surprised how often this is missed. There are few things more distracting than reading a conversation when a character begins talking and we didn’t even realize he was there the whole time!)

Of course you can go beyond these and include details about the weather, atmosphere, social conditions, historical era, etc. Setting can even sometimes be used as a metaphor, as in my latest novel, The Girl in the Gatehouse. But this is “extra credit;” cover the basics first.
Don’t overdo it. We’ve all read books in which authors spend pages and pages describing setting. Description can quickly become boring if it drags on too long. As writers, we want to evoke a sense of time and place that hooks readers, rather than making them want to skim, skip, or worse, put the book down. So use setting sparingly. Break it up into small pieces and work these details in with other aspects of the novel--action, dialogue, etc.

Remember that the reader wants to “see” the drama play out in his or her head. Our job is to provide just enough detail to get that process in motion and then get on with the story.


Mariah Aubrey lives in seclusion with her secrets. Will an ambitious captain uncover her identity ... and her hidden past?

Banished from the only home she’s ever known, Mariah Aubrey hides herself away in an abandoned gatehouse on a distant relative’s estate. There she supports herself and her loyal servant the only way she knows how—by writing novels in secret.

When Captain Matthew Bryant leases the estate, he is intrigued by the beautiful girl in the gatehouse. But there are many things he doesn’t know about this beguiling outcast. Will he risk his plans—and his heart—for a woman shadowed by scandal?

Intriguing, mysterious, and romantic, The Girl in the Gatehouse takes readers inside the life of a secret authoress at a time when novel-writing was considered improper for ladies and the smallest hint of impropriety could change a woman’s life forever.


JULIE KLASSEN loves all things Jane—Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Julie has worked as a fiction editor and novelist. Her book The Silent Governess won the 2010 Christy Award for Historical Romance. She and her husband have two sons and live in St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, visit

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