Saturday, April 24, 2021

Setting and Place, What’s the Difference, by Kait Carson


It’s the subtle distinctions of writing that can slow you down the most. Take setting and place. To a writer, those two words are related, but not the same. The setting is the overall area where the action takes place. For example, my books are set in Florida. The action of the stories occurs in various places within the setting. My characters may be in Key West (setting) drinking margaritas on Smathers Beach (place).


Key West can be painted in broad strokes. My readers need to see the tropics, pastel-colored houses, salty breezes, steel drum music, a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tourists, a babble of languages. There is no need, unless it’s germane to the story, to describe the contents of the store fronts and bars along Duval Street, or name the individual plantings in the gardens that line the road. Setting is an atmosphere. Vague enough to allow the reader to insert themselves. This is especially important when the setting is a real location.


When I think of Key West Fast Buck Freddie’s springs to mind, and I want to go to The Buttery for dinner. Freddie’s is a CVS now, and The Buttery has been seven or eight restaurants. The last time I was in Key West, the front window sported a “for let” sign and the old girl looked very down at the heels. None of those details are important to the setting of my story. What’s important is the swirl of sounds, smells, and humanity that make up the setting of Key West.


Place is specific and detailed. A well-drawn place is as important as a fully developed character. If my characters are out drinking on Smathers Beach, they’re hiding their margaritas in Yeti mugs and keeping a sharp eye out for law enforcement. Open containers are illegal in Key West. That detail lends the flavor of authenticity to the scene and can be used as a plot point. Readers need to feel the sand under their feet, the tickle of sea foam as it covers their toes, the dribble of perspiration from their hairline, and the sizzle of the sun on their shoulders. Place is where the heart of the action occurs.


If showing up is eighty percent of life, it’s one hundred percent of place. To be effective, your characters and your readers need to intimately occupy the place of a story. When place is well done, a reader should look up from the book and be startled to see their own living room.


What books or stories have you read that transport you to the place of the action?


  1. Excellent analysis of the distinction between setting and place... and how the reader will react/feel each.

  2. Fantasy novels often do a wonderful job with both setting and place.

  3. Such an interesting distinction. There are many authors who do "place" so well that you feel that sense of immersion you noted. Leslie Budewitz' Spice Shop books, Ellie Alexander's books set in Ashland, Oregon, Anne Hillerman's books set in the southwest, Jim's Seamus McCree books on Michigan's UP. I could go on - I enjoy traveling through books!

  4. @Debra - Thanks!

    @Jim - well written fantasy novels and sci fi, too, set the bar high.

    @Shari - Wonderful examples! It's a treat to look up from your book and be surprised to discover you are in your own living room.

  5. I love the feeling of looking up from whatever I'm reading & being surprised I'm in my own living room!

  6. PD James's books set on the Norfolk coast, Ann Cleeves's books set in Dorset, the Shetland Islands, and Northumberland. Elly Griffith's Ruth Galloway series. And Martin Walker's Inspector Bruno books, set in the Dordogne, filled with descriptions of the food, the landscape, the people, the wine, the truffles...with quite a bit of twentieth century history and politics influencing the present-day plots.

  7. @ KM - me too, especially in these days of pandemic! It's a breath of fresh air.

    @ Margaret - They sound delicious, Margaret. You've just grown my tbr pile!