Wednesday, July 11, 2012

5 Tips for Strong Settings from Sheila Kelly Welch

Here's another of my namelos guests. Sheila Kelly Welch, author of Waiting to Forget, shares five tips on bringing your setting to powerful life.

Where in the World?

Back when cell phones were just beginning to become common, our teenaged children would answer our house phone, and the first question they always asked their friends was, “Where you at?” Often this was followed by, “When you getting here?” We humans have an innate desire to ask and answer those two basic questions, “Where?” and “When?”

As authors, we need to give readers a feeling for the time and place of our stories. Chris already has written an informative blog post that gives an overview about settings, so I decided to narrow my focus to a few specific suggestions.

A sense of place is simply the background for stories such as Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series that are driven mainly by interplay between characters. In contrast, the setting is of upmost importance in stories like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet with the wilderness playing as big a role as the character.

Each author determines how large a part a story’s time and place will play. In my own case, when I begin to form an idea, the setting almost always grows along with my concept of the characters. In addition, for most of my writing, “where” and sometimes “when” are crucial to the plot.

Although some young readers may love to read long, descriptive passages, many are bored and will skip over these sections or even be discouraged and toss the whole book, magazine, or e-reader aside. Here are my five tips for creating convincing settings that will keep kids reading.

1) Use vivid and, if possible, unique details that help set the tone of your story and make readers feel as if they are there with your characters.

2) Reveal information about the location of your story or scene gradually, not all at once.

3) Connect the description with an emotion or an emotional response on the part of the character(s). Whether the setting reflects or contrasts with the character’s mood doesn’t matter. The important thing is to relate the place to the character’s feelings.

4) Weave the description in and around dialog or action. This helps keep the scene from becoming static and helps readers build a complete mental image that includes the characters.

5) Use all five senses in your description. This is often neglected because authors “see” the location and tell only what it looks like. Adding the smells, tastes, sounds, and textures offers many opportunities to immerse your readers in your story’s setting.

My short story, “The Holding-On Night” published in Cricket, is about the 1918 pandemic, so what happens is tied to the time and place. Although I researched that time period, I was fortunate to have a first-hand account from my mother. She also told me many details about her childhood environment that helped me create the setting.

The story is only about six pages long but illustrates all five of my tips or suggestions. Below I’ve arranged most of the references to the setting as they appear in the story and have labeled and discussed the corresponding number of the tip(s) (see above). As you’ll discover, there is considerable overlap.

> Anna squinted up at the stern clouds in the October sky. A sharp breeze skimmed across the field, whispering a threat of winter through the dried grasses. She shivered.

#3, #5 This first paragraph reflects the sense of foreboding that the girl feels, before the terror of the illness is even mentioned. The sound of the wind is part of the scene.

> Anna’s older sister, Ellen, walked beside her on the narrow path. “It’s going to rain,” she said. “I can feel it.”

“Beeeeep!” yelled nine-year-old Peggie. She was trying--unsuccessfully--to imitate the blaring horns of the Model T Fords that sometimes chugged past their house.

#2, #4 Separated by even more dialog, these two portions show how bits and pieces of the setting are introduced gradually and are woven into the action and dialog.

> The path was for all the McNaughton school-age children. Their father had gotten permission from the farmer who owned the field and spent all of a weekend hacking through the weeds to create a shortcut to school.

#2, #3 Again, here’s a gradual introduction, but this time with an emotional connection. Readers are shown how much the children’s father cares for them.

> Ellen was insisting that Maria hold her hand, even though there were no wagons or noisy automobiles out and about with the deadly influenza stalking the country.

#1, #3 Here are details, unique to this setting, and Ellen’s concern for her younger sibling is demonstrated.

> She trudged across the dusty road and along the cracked sidewalk. Just as she started up the sagging wooden steps onto the front porch of their home, the door burst open. Peggie stomped out. “There’s no bread!”

#2 Here are action and dialog, along with description.

 > Through the open door she could feel the heat of the kitchen and smell the slightly sickening odor of diapers boiling, being sterilized on the wood stove.

The house was too warm; their father had fed the potbellied stove so much wood, it glowed --- as if fire could drive away the flu like a wild beast.

#1, #5 Unique details are used plus the senses of touch and smell.

> Daddy had brought down several chamber pots and helped the little ones to use them. The stench was all around, and Anna lay, barely breathing.

#3, #5 Both father and daughter are connected to the setting, and, obviously, the sense of smell is used.

> The rocker moved gently back and forth. Her father’s heart thumped to the rhythm. Anna felt his arms, holding her, keeping her from sliding forever into the darkness.

Early in the morning, as the first light seeped into the kitchen, Anna climbed from her father’s arms.

#3, #5 These last two examples use touch, sound, and sight. Also, the light coming into the kitchen reflects the emotions of the child.

While creating a convincing setting can be a challenge, it is well worth the effort. If you use these five tips, you’ll help readers to feel a connection – not just to the setting you’ve described – but to your whole story.

Sheila Kelly Welch is a former teacher who writes and illustrates for children of all ages. Her story, “The Holding-On Night,” published in Cricket, won the International Reading Association’s 2007 Paul A. Witty Short Story Award. Her work has appeared in many children’s magazines, and she has written a collection of short stories, three easy-to-read chapter books, and five novels, including her most recent, Waiting to Forget, published by namelos. Waiting to Forget begins and ends in a hospital, and in between, twelve-year-old T.J. struggles with memories of his difficult other life, before he was adopted, and with the reasons why his little sister now lies unconscious in the emergency room. Library Media Connection highly recommended it and said, “This is a story that, once read, you will never forget.”

See both the text and illustrations for “The Holding-On Night.”

Watch a book trailer for Waiting to Forget.


  1. This is a great post - outlining what to do and then giving us examples. Love it. I like the idea of the setting as playing a role. Makes every scene richer for it.

  2. Good reminder of how essential the setting is for plunging a reader into a story, and how important it is to avoid overloading the information. Like Karen, I liked the examples you gave.

  3. Even when the setting doesn't make it prominently into the story, the writer should be very clear about it so that it seeps in.
    Nice post.

  4. When I was a kid, I hated descriptive passages, and would skip over them. Ironically, I loved stories with "atmosphere". or a strong sense of place. I guess the trick is to evoke that sense of place without making the reader want to skip. Thanks, Chris and Sheila, for the helpful tips on how to do this!

  5. Thanks Sheila! Great points on setting. Loved Waiting to Forget.

  6. Thanks for reading and for making such interesting comments. I used to do a lot of school visits, and one of my favorite exercises was inviting the kids to describe a setting without naming it and without the use of sight. Then they'd read these out loud, and we'd all guess the settings. The kids were amazing. I can still recall one girl's description in which she heard "the slap, slap of a jump rope."