Case Studies For Writers

a craft toolbox

Aug 9, 2019

Boosting Authenticity Through Real-World Setting


By Alicia McLachlan.

Establishing a strong sense of place can be a valuable secret weapon when immersing readers into a story. I’ve even seen this particular craft listed as a major draw on some agents’ wish lists.

It’s why fantasy writers spend so much time world-building, often including maps and extensive prologues to help readers orient themselves in their vast imaginary universes. It can be just as effective in a real-world setting as well.



Sometimes, an author may choose not to burden themselves with a detailed setting at all. I recently read an adorable workplace romance where the author vividly described the office building and apartments where most of the story took place. However, it wasn’t set in any particular town. Only one generic street name was ever mentioned, and the fictional town name used for a side plot could have placed the overall story anywhere.

But of course, many writers do want a real-world place to feature strongly in their stories. Perhaps the story is based on true events. Or it could be to help add context for the plot, or simply to write an homage to a hometown or favorite place. So, how should you go about it?

To start, figure out why you need to use that location. How will it serve your characters and your story? If you can build some link between the story and the location, all the better. For example, in one of my recent pieces, the romantic tension building between my two leads is paralleled with the atmospheric tension building within the tropical climate setting. When the thunderstorm season finally hits, BOOM! The romantic tension finally breaks in my characters' relationship as well.

If you want to write a story that feels authentic and grounded to the setting, but you don't know where to start, ask yourself some questions about your chosen location. Think about character traits that distinguish the local population. Get an understanding for some basic demographics, like race and religion, immigration and socio-economic statistics, climate, the current economy and government, and dominant industries that drive the workforce. If you're writing a period piece, look up this information for the time when your story is set.

Some other attributes to consider: Is there a cultural or nightlife scene? It would seem obvious for a setting like Italy or France, but in one of my current works in progress, the most exciting things to do are the weekly markets by the beach and a reptile museum. What do residents do for fun and where do they travel when they want to get away from it all? Perhaps your characters work the daily grind in Manhattan and escape to The Hamptons for the weekend. Or maybe they would like to, but can’t afford it.

Is your setting clean and safe? I would hope so for a romantic comedy, but if you’re writing a murder mystery or drama, then maybe not. Details like these can be simple ways to infuse your story with a distinct tone.

Once you have a solid understanding of your setting, shade in your characters with your new knowledge. How do all these random facts impact your character’s attitude and way of life? How has living in this place shaped the person they have become? The deeper you dig in, the more credible each of your characters will be.

When you’re ready to write dialogue, try watching videos online to study local dialects and slang.

The only caveat to writing real locations is you need to be careful to describe them visually enough to put the reader there, while at the same time not distracting from the plot and character developments which should always be at the heart of your story.

Remember, the setting should always serve the narrative, not the other way around.




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About the Author: Alicia McLachlan
Alicia is an aspiring screenwriter. After attending film school, she maintained a writing hobby on and off through years of traveling and various customer service and office administrative odd jobs. Now settled down and writing full time, Alicia's own life is pretty simpleshe likes to keep the drama on the page for her characters to work out! Her specialty is exploring all kinds of contemporary relationships in a dramatic real world, but she’s keen to give comedy and suspense a try too, and she is also starting to play with narrative fiction in addition to her first love of screenplays. She takes inspiration from her ongoing travels, people-watching, and the often hard-to-believe stories that emerge from the world around her.

You can follow Alicia on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AliciaMcLachlanShe loves chatting with other writers on the craft and business of writing.