Why the Where Matters (Part II)

piping plover plum island

Last month I shared my utter ignorance about why the Where matters in a story, confessing that Setting had never interested me much. (Read that post here.)

To me, Setting was nothing more than a nice description of the natural world, the urban world, the domestic world. And writing (or reading) about that put me in a sleepy, book-closing mood. I cared about the people in stories, not where those people hung their hats.

No surprise, the more I studied it, the more I began to understand that of course, Setting (or Place as I now think of it) is much more than location. Place drives character. Place determines the identity, values, and goals of the characters. Place drives the plot. In a way. More or less. I think.

Because I was still a little foggy and fuzzy on the whole concept, I called on my friend, Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of the recently-released The Art of Floating, a stunning, heartbreaking, fresh and funny novel that’s like none I’ve read before. In this novel, Place truly is a character, and, at the same time, it molds the characters. How does she do it? I have no idea. It’s as mysterious as Magic Shell.

Lucky for me, she was willing to chat about it with you, so please, keep reading to glean some of Kristin’s fabulous and witty wisdom. And then go get your hands on her novel. The prose sings arias and rock ‘n’ roll. The characters (one in particular) will get lodged in your heart. And the Place! Oh, the Place!

Take it away, Kristin . . .

Place: Getting It On the Page Whenever I teach my “The Geography of a Novel” workshop at a writers’ conference, I introduce myself as a place-passionate writer and cultural spelunker. The terms formalize my writerly addiction to place, make it seem tame and orderly, and even make me look kinda normal. But as I lead writers through the various stages of the workshop, they realize pretty damn quickly that I’m the nutball of all nutballs about place, and when I describe the crazy-ass, magical, spine-tingling, mystical roaring I feel in my soul whenever I land in a city or country with which I connect deeply and about which I know I will write, they scooch back a little and eye me warily, as you might a rabid raccoon. But despite their trepidation, most stick around, anxious to learn a little something about how to transfer a deep connection to place onto the page. Over the years and via various projects, I’ve figured out all kinds of ways to create a place on the page about which readers pant and say, “Wow, your city/country/castle/village/mountain/etcetera is just like another character in your book!” And while describing a place is a great start—who doesn’t love a spot-on description?!—it takes a lot more than that to connect readers to your setting. Here are some strategies to help you get there:

Align Physical and Emotional Topographies. Figure out the topography of your setting. Are there valleys, mountains, dunes? Hills? Caves? What bodies of water are there (rivers, runnels, lakes, ponds, puddles)? What’s the elevation? What shape is the land? And so on. Once you’ve established the topography, whether real or imagined, align it with the emotional topographies of your characters. In other words, use the physical to help express the emotional. For example, in my novel Thirsty, Klara Bozic is struggling through an abusive marriage. To get to where she needs to go both in town and life, she has to walk up and down the incredibly steep hills in Pittsburgh, where the story takes place. The emotional topography reflects the physical. And in my new novel, The Art of Floating, Odyssia Dane lives on the beach on Plum Island, Massachusetts. Her emotional responses often reflect the ebb and flow of the tide.9780425271483_large_The Art of Floating_HIGH RES (1)

Collective Habits. Incorporate the collective habits of the people in your story. No matter where your story is set—big city, small town, suburb, back alley, planet other than Earth, etcetera—I guarantee that various groups form collective habits. For example, on Friday nights after a high school football game, everyone in your small town might go to Dairy Queen. In The Art of Floating, folks hang out at the local Starbucks, which is where Odyssia goes when she first realizes that her husband might be missing.

Collective Feelings. In addition to habits, people in all kinds of places have collective feelings: guilt, regret, sadness, love, anger, and so on. When something profound happens in your story, incorporate those collective feelings. It’s a powerful way to establish place. After Jackson disappears in The Art of Floating, the entire town misses him and longs for him in unique ways.

Interaction. Let your characters interact with your place. Folks don’t just live on Earth/in a town/in a house/on a mountainside; they interact with those places. And—this is important—different characters interact differently. In The Art of Floating, Odyssia adores the beach and spends every moment she can there, but television reporter Melissa Cho is so wildly uncomfortable on the very same beach, she insists on wearing a pair of yellow pumps while walking on it.

Objects. Use the objects that naturally appear in your place. In the first chapter of The Art of Floating, you see a teepee built from driftwood on the beach. As the story progresses, you get occasional glimpses of this teepee, and each time, the waves have dismantled it a bit more. In addition to helping to establish a sense of place, the teepee helps readers mark time, deepens character development (Odyssia reveals information about her missing husband via this teepee), and enhances the emotional tension in the story.

Ignition. What is it about your setting that ignites the emotions of the characters in your story? What makes people hot under the collar in relation to place? In The Art of Floating, a number of beaches on Plum Island are closed to IMG_1880humans for a few months every summer in order to protect the nesting habitat of a wee bird called the piping plover (this is true in “real life,” too). Some folks respect this policy; others abhor it. Each year when the temperature rises, so does the battle over the beaches. It ain’t pretty, but it becomes a vital part of the plot (which leads to my final point…).

Allow Place to Move Plot. Place and plot are not separate entities. They are pals, good buddies, opportunists; you can even go so far as to say they are delightfully entertaining codependents just waiting for you to recognize their abilities. Whew. It is a heck of a lot of work to make a place sing, but it so worth it.

Questions for you: What are some other key strategies for getting place on the page? Which novels do you love because of their strong sense of place? How do you (as a person/writer) connect to a place (anyone else experience that crazy-ass, magical, spine-tingling, mystical roaring in their soul)?


Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin|Berkley 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press 2009), as well as numerous essays about China, bears, and off-the-plot expats. She lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter, and she travels to anywhere as often as she can. Plum Island boardwalk photo compliments of Flickr’s Brian Gudzevich.


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. says

    Quite lovely, Kristin. One does think of place as a character in most novels. And with that in mind, the backstory of a place can also be a primary element of setting. Could anyone set a novel in Columbine without the backstory of place? How about Oklahoma City after the bombing? I also find the local folklore of a setting to be a rich mine of wonderfulness. Both backstory and folklore for a fictional location can be (and perhaps should be) created by the author. For real-world settings, it is a gift to a writer to know something of both. I think some writers fear getting too detailed in backstory and folklore of place because they want their story to be real to people who live elsewhere ~ as sort of an appeal to generalness, a “this could be your town” kind of thing. The opposite, though, is often the case. And the list of examples from among well-loved novels is endless: To Kill a Mockingbird (not only is the town a character, it is the villain of the story), Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, China Town (oops I stuck in a movie). I wonder if anyone here has a favorite novel in which place/setting is NOT a character.

  2. says

    I love what you say here about Place being a character. I think I first experienced this as a reader when I read Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘House on the Strand’. Cornwall, the moors, the house, all of it became the ground in which the story grew and blossomed. And then, of course, there’s Middle Earth. And I could name a dozen other Places that I return to in my imagination on a regular basis. I also love your “crazy-ass, magical, spine-tingling” reaction to places with which you connect. You sound like you have a seriously Gypsy Soul! A big thanks to Sarah for hosting you today.
    Susan Setteducato´s last blog post ..Susan’s Blog

  3. Denise Willson says

    Great post!

    I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t go into detail, but for those fascinated by how place moves a story, I highly recommend watching James Cameron’s Titanic – over and over again. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

      • Denise Willson says

        Do, do! Be prepared to laugh out loud, get angry, and tuck a box of kleenex tightly to your side. You’ll never see a boat in the same light again.

        Denise Willson
        Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  4. says

    Thanks. Even when I wrote stories into my sermons and devotional messages, I wanted to paint a picture that revealed the where for the story to be experienced. The where adds context and relatability to the reader or listener. It provides authenticity that connects.

    I love John Grisham for his use of imagery to smell and see each interaction of his characters.

    It is nice to talk about going swimming on a beach, but it is another to feel the hot sand under your feet and saltiness of the waves splashing your face as the sun bakes the white bodies on the beach we see through our shades that we filter the story that unfolds.

    Mike “Coach” Brown´s last blog post ..What Happens When Our Hope is Wrongly Placed

  5. says

    Absolutely loved this post! So clear and precise. I am often drawn to stories with these qualities. A deep sense of the location is like a magnet for me. Funny, I was just rereading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses From an Old Manse and one of his chapters, “Buds and Bird-Voices” invites the reader into nature, spring birds, lilac trees, the gleaming changing seasons, etc. Of course Hawthorne was a master at making place a character. This little chapter of his is quite stimulating as he relates it to humanity, spirit, and soul, as you say, “aligning emotional topographies.”
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Haunted Oleron

  6. says


    That’s as handy a guide as one could wish for. Place isn’t a character, it’s static, it changes only slowly. Only in the mind and hearts of characters can place spring alive and truly become part of the story.

    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Deal: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

    • says

      Thanks, Don.

      I agree that place is not a character, but I wouldn’t say that it’s static. Yes, place can—and often does—change slowly, but sometimes it changes in an instant. Look at how both Sri Lanka and Sonali Deraniyagala’s family/life changed as a result of the 2004 tsunami (documented in Deraniyagala’s heartbreaking memoir WAVE). Whew. Instantly.

      For me, the most important thing is that as the writer, I know place isn’t a character and I can’t treat it as such…but if I do my job well, passionate readers feel the place I create so deeply, they believe on some level that the place is a character. Know what I mean?
      Kristin Bair O’Keeffe´s last blog post ..Plover Controversy Heats Up in THE ART OF FLOATING & “Real Life”

  7. says

    I tend to tune out if a place is described too much, honestly. (I recently blogged about this subject.) I get bogged down and trying to remember what color of which pair of shutters is relative to what collection of the kind of flowers I had to look up to visualize in the first place. “Long abandoned desert gas station that smelled of urine and diesel” does as much for me as describing every wall, floor, and ceiling of said place.

    That being said, I enjoy being absorbed in a story as much as anyone. Usually I am absorbed by why of characters, but if the conditions are right, I can be absorbed by place. But descriptions need to be brief yet potent. Reveal as much as possible with few words, and even then only if place is in fact a character within the particular story. (It isn’t always, to me. Sometimes a cafe’ is just a a cafe’. I like to let my readers conjure the details.)

    Also, a description will be better for me if there isn’t a whole lot of measurement involved. A window, about 5 feet long and 3 and a half feet wide let in the early morning sun, which cascades on the 4 foot tall bookshelf that rested along the far side of her bedroom, about 10 feet away.” I don’t want to have to use a ruler to get a sense of what the setting looks like.

    But when it works, it works. For me, the most recent example of description striking a balance between purple and plain was The Black Tower by Louis Bayard.
    Ty Unglebower´s last blog post ..Descriptions: Writing “Through the Catcher’s Mitt”

  8. says

    Getting place on the page also depends on POV. I remember when I was 5, we lived in Hawaii. When I think of Hawaii I picture the plain cinderblock walls of our Navy housing. Not the typical picture of Hawaii. We moved to Washington state. I remember thinking the evergreens were endless and looked for bears the moment we touched down in Seattle. San Diego: it always felt like the first day of summer, hazy and warm. Virginia Beach: gray water beaches and video arcades clanging with the noise of Pac Man and Centipede. Yorktown: crabbing off the pier on the York River and colorful, warm autumns. I grew older as we moved, of course, so my picture has been frozen by my age at the time. To this day, say Hawaii to me and I see those Navy housing units, the gnats that would harass me whenever I went outside, and the mean black dog tied to a coconut tree, making for some adventurous moments of fallen coconut gathering. Probably not what most of you think of when someone mentions Hawaii.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..The Fault In Our Stars – the story structure

    • says

      Great point, Ron. The lens through which readers see a place determines so much. That gets back to what I was saying about allowing characters to interact differently with a place. How you see Hawaii and how I see Hawaii could create a wonderful tension in a story.

      When I think about the POV aspect of place, I think about Scott Russell Sanders’s essays; he does such a gorgeous job of putting readers in familiar places but getting them to see those places through unique and personal lenses. (Yes, nonfiction vs. fiction but many crossovers.)

      Thanks so much for sharing this.
      Kristin Bair O’Keeffe´s last blog post ..Plover Controversy Heats Up in THE ART OF FLOATING & “Real Life”

  9. Poeticus says

    Setting for me is a narrative’s time, place, and situation: when and where context and what, why, and how texture that shapes who context and develops reality imitation, that develops reader identification and association with a narrative’s external life. Setting is a fount for symbolism, imagery, motif, sensation, ambience, emotional mood, for antagonism, causation, tension.

    Setting is relative and absolute: name a familiar place, the pastel-colored taqueria bodega on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Front Street, Greenton, an absolute place; the downtown dog park, a relative place; Michelle Mitchell Fondants outlet store, a relative and absolute place.

    Place and situation’s influences on persons are subtle and profound, subtle in that where affects dialect, For example, people speak faster and sharper, louder who live in noisy, crowded places; people speak slower, softer, quiter who live in quite, open places. Persons who live in woodlands have a language of place as forest; people who live on coasts have a language of water and wind.

    Time moves through settings. A brand-new real estate development has crisp edges, sparse landscape, as yet untamed back corners where builders’ touches didn’t reach and consumers have yet to make a mark. This is an ecotone — where two or more distinct circumstances meet and meld, like water and land meet, perhaps a beach — where life as it was before overlaps with life as it is now, luminal as a place of mystical transition. An ancient castle pile molders, fetors; edges diffuse, settles into the earth. A rust-bucket car, a children’s crudely maintained treehouse, a weathered floorboard utility trailer — time moved through them.

    A setting’s relative or absolute situation is antagonizing; that is, causes tensional wants and problems. An apartment building’s loud, unruly neighbors frustrate a quiet, peaceful denizen, who wants to live elsewhere. Municipal living provides convenient goods and services access, ample occasion for social networking, yet urban crowding causes frictions. Rural living puts goods and services, social netorking at remote distances, yet provides a rustic tranquility rare anymore. Hermitages are isolated enclaves.

    A riverside repose may be episodically disturbed by floods, a coastal retreat by storms, a pastoral plain by cyclones, drought, unbearable summer heat, another place may suffer tremors, another brutal blizzards. An office building’s cubicle farm may comfort some, alienate other workers. A corner office is a prestige place for its wrapping windows vista. An interior office may be comforting for its acrophobe or stifling for a claustrophobe.

    J.R.R. Tolkien considered the secondary settings of a narrative — secondary meaning different from real-world routine, everyday alpha settings — exotic settings: routines interrupted, which is a core for most, if not all, dramatic narratives. Exotic is a viewpoint perspective. The backyard may be as familiar a routine as the back of the hand, or be an everyday exotic adventure. A setting may be either exotic with comforting, familiar normalcy routines, or normal places with exotic appeals, or degrees of both. Today, the commute to work passed by an animal parade ambling from the railyard to the circus venue. Yesterday, the party boat capsized on the bay. Tomorrow, a love interest expresses desire at a church picnic and upsets the whole applecart.

    Time, place, and situation antagonal, causal, and tensional development develop setting as dramatis personae, as an agonist (contestant) character. An individual and nature, otherwise known as man versus nature, but the former is gender neutral and allows the contention may not be exclusively confrontational and yet still be dramatic. An individual and society, otherwise known as man versus man. An individual and the gods, otherwise known as man versus the gods, or man versus government. Each of these general themes is relevant to the setting, to each other, to the subject matter, the characters, the events, the occasion, and to the audience.

  10. says

    Excellent post, thank you. Setting remains essential in any story, but in the age of media this-and-that, developing setting has become much more difficult.
    I treat setting as a key way to reveal states of mind. Out of the literally infinite number of things that might register in the mind of a POV character, what he/she/it sees, smells, hears etc., tells the reader a lot about what’s on that character’s mind. Is everything rosy? Noir? Seen in strictly scientific terms? In life or fiction, characters must choose, and the choices say a lot about them.

  11. says

    Why, thank you, Randy! Terrific thoughts on the importance of including both back story AND folklore. Both are important, aren’t they? I’m not a big believer in place actually BEING a character, but I am a big believer in creating a place so well on the page that readers can’t help but say, “That place in the book is another character in this book.” :)

    Kristin Bair O’Keeffe´s last blog post ..Plover Controversy Heats Up in THE ART OF FLOATING & “Real Life”

  12. says

    LOVE this post and I love when place is so vivid it’s like a character on the page. I try to use the idea of emotional landscape in my writing as well, though I’m not always sure it comes across. Currently, I’m working on a novel set in Anchorage, Alaska, where I lived as a kid and where I still have family living. It’s definitely its own world, but it’s hard to draw out what I remember and reflect it on to the page. I’ll have to try some of your pointers.

    I think food is also a great way to show place, similar to “Collective Habits,” there’s often certain foods that are popular in certain areas, such as clam chowder in sourdough bowls in San Francisco.
    Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Good Reads for Writers — On Plotting

    • says

      Thanks, Andrea! Anchorage, Alaska…what a terrific challenge for a novel. Hope my pointers prove to be helpful. Not knowing much of anything but what I’ve seen on wildlife shows and in books, I’d say, look to the terrain. What grows? What lives? What thrives & survives? What fails?

      And yes, absolutely, food is one of those universal “collective habits” that can help to establish just about any place. (now craving clam chowder in a sourdough bowl…) :)
      Kristin Bair O’Keeffe´s last blog post ..Plover Controversy Heats Up in THE ART OF FLOATING & “Real Life”

  13. says

    What a great post about Place as Character. I just taught a workshop about this last month, would have loved to have this as a handout. One of the best I’ve come across. Thank you so much for posting.
    Judy Reeves´s last blog post ..Writing Retreat Season

    • says

      It has been MY pleasure . . . I love all of these comments and am so grateful that we have a community where we can share our ideas and our experiences.

      You were so generous to share today. Thank YOU!
      Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Crow

  14. says

    Quick note, All! There’s a poignant example of “collective emotion” in a recent Guardian article about Michelle Knight, the young woman who was kidnapped and held captive for 11 years by Ariel Castro in Cleveland. It’s a ghastly, heartbreaking story, and Cleveland is taking it hard.

    Here’s what the Guardian piece said:

    “The next day we head to Cleveland’s Magnetic North Studio, where Knight is recording a charity single with her 16-year-old friend, Mitchell. The taxi driver, Will, like every cabbie I meet in Cleveland, is keen to talk about Castro and his captives. He tells me that he was friends with the father of Gina DeJesus and would regularly go out looking for her. He passed Castro’s house every day. ‘I didn’t have a clue. Can you imagine? Every day I drove past.’ He is beating himself up about it. ‘You know, Castro was in a band. I actually went to see them play.’ It comes out like a confession. ‘They were pretty good. He played bass guitar.’ You sense the city shares a kind of collective guilt.”

    [link to May 9, 2014 article: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/10/michelle-knight-ariel-castro-how-i-survived?CMP=fb_gu
    Kristin Bair O’Keeffe´s last blog post ..Plover Controversy Heats Up in THE ART OF FLOATING & “Real Life”

    • says

      Wow. This is such an amazing example . . . and it makes perfect sense how Place is impacted by tragedy (or by survivors’ guilt). It makes me think of NYC after September 11th. Now THAT is an example of the power of place in the face of tragedy and, ultimately, revival.

      Thanks for sharing this unique perspective!
      Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Crow

  15. says

    I love stories that are deeply grounded in a place. Other authors who do it well? Imagine William Kent Kruger anywhere except the boundary waters of northern Minnesota; Wallace Stroby’s Heartbreak Hotel outside of the Jersey shore; Mary Alice Monroe beyond the South Carolina beaches.

    It isn’t the description, it’s how these places have shaped the characters and how they influence the story that makes them wonderful.
    Cathy Perkins´s last blog post ..My Writing Process