Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Make Them Think You Lived There: The Importance of Setting by Norma Gail

How can you make your setting real to your readers? Author Norma Gail provides seven tips from her own experience. -- Sandy

Norma: Can your readers smell the food and hear the sounds of the countryside? Setting is a critical feature of any novel, and should act as another character; drawing the reader in and making them feel the rain on their face. One of the greatest challenges in writing Land of My Dreams, my contemporary Christian romance, was to make the reader feel as if they were in Scotland, a country I only visited for two weeks.

I gathered a lot of information in order to see as much as possible on our trip. However, it wasn’t enough to make me an expert. Here are seven steps which helped me create a story world capable of convincing readers I had lived in Scotland:

First, if possible, travel to the place you’re writing about. When I went to Scotland I kept a trip diary, and we took over 700 photographs. Only a few are of the area where the book takes place because it never occurred to me that I would someday write a book about it.

Second, learn cultural details, music, food, speech, history. I filled my iPod with Scottish folk tunes and devoured tour books. And yes, I ate haggis.

Third, understand the weather. Rain is a part of Scottish life. Sunshine is as unique for them as rain is in my native New Mexico. Children played in the pouring rain wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts while I was bundled against the dreich weather, and hoping not to get drookit.

Fourth, learn something about how people talk. Basically, dreich is wet and rainy, and drookit is soaking wet. They use “Way In” instead of “Entrance,” and “Way Out” instead of “Exit.” When you order water the waiter will ask if you want “Still” or “Sparkling.” I was criticized for having male characters say it was a “lovely day,” but it is a common term for both men and women. There are websites of common Scottish/Gaelic names, slang, and phrases.

Fifth, I created a screen-saver of over 400 photos of the area where Land of My Dreams takes place, including scenery, historical places, road signs, shop windows, and animals. I can look at the photos and then write and revise until it feels right.

Sixth, create similes and metaphors that compare and contrast things familiar to your audience with something commonplace to the characters. For example, Kieran is drawn to Bonny “like a bee to heather.”

Last, find someone who has lived there. I found someone able to edit for Scottish content. Contemporary must be as accurate as possible because your readers can visit as it is today.

Efforts to make your story world appealing, realistic, and mood-setting are worth all the research that goes into creating it. When someone reads Land of My Dreams, I want them to smell the New Mexico chile roasting and hear the skirl of bagpipes.

© Copyright by Norma Gail Thurston Holtman, October 10, 2014

So, how do you go about making your setting real to your readers? What are your favorite senses to use when describing something? Do you use them all in every scene or chapter?


Norma Gail’s debut contemporary Christian romance, Land of My Dreams, set in Scotland and New Mexico released in April 2014. She has led weekly women’s Bible studies for 19 years. Her devotionals, poetry have appeared at, the Stitches Thru Time blog, and in “The Secret Place.” She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, FaithWriters, and the New Mexico Christian Novelists. She is a former RN who lives in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband of 38 years. They have two adult children.