Readers love to be transported. Writers who master the art of place and setting in fiction and nonfiction vastly improve their writing and dramatically help themselves connect with readers—and with literary agents and editors as well!
Learn how to write rich fiction by employing visited places, researched places and imagined places, how to explore ideas and cultural themes in nonfiction using place, and how to create a themed collection of essays connected by place. Learn how to open with place, value place, create intentional worlds, and much more!
Learn the art of place and setting from Eric Maisel, America's foremost creativity coach and the author of A Writer's Paris, A Writer's San Francisco, and more than forty other books, among them A Writer's Space, Fearless Creating, and Coaching the Artist Within.
Eric Maisel has dispensed a lot of writing advice and he seemed a natural fit for this bundle. I don't know Eric, but he came recommended to me by several sources. Best of all, he rushed to finish his new book, Mastering Place and Setting in Your Writing just for you. It debuts here before appearing anywhere else. – Kevin J. Anderson
In this guide I'd like to give you the opportunity to think about how you might use "place" in your writing. By "place" I mean "setting" but I mean something more than "setting." Real places, like the Brooklyn of my youth, Paris where I visit frequently, or San Francisco, where I've lived most of my adult life, are rich in idiosyncratic resonances and when we make use of such places we are adding both richness and meaning to what we write. Imagined places are wonderful but real places have something special going for them. Let's explore this!
I grew up in Brooklyn. I can picture the Brooklyn of my childhood and youth with photographic clarity. I can also picture with great clarity places I have never visited: the Algeria of Albert Camus's childhood, as he described it in The Last Man, the pastoral England of Thomas Hardy, the New England whaling world of Herman Melville, the southern small town feel in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The richness of these settings is a gift to readers. They allow us not only to travel in imagination, which is no small joy, but they help us fathom what we want our life to mean.
By inhabiting an author's St. Petersburg, Paris or Savannah for a few hours we rework our understanding of the universe. We augment our understanding of class and privilege as we read about tea served from a silver samovar. We change our mind about how much personal space we need as we live with a character in her under-the-eaves Paris studio. We recalibrate our conception of race relations as we attend an all-white private club luncheon waited on by an all-black wait staff. We are not in "the real" St. Petersburg, Paris or Savannah: we are in a place the author has created, learning what the author intends us to learn.
Setting in this sense is place and time and much, much more. That "more" includes the author's mind, heart, and intentions. The setting of a piece of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, is never some realistic snapshot of a place, as no such realistic snapshot exists. If you were to try to describe with the utmost accuracy every structure in a city—every hovel, every mansion, every church, every shop, every bridge, every government building—and then went on to describe every stitch of clothing, every piece of furniture, every custom, every meal, every parade, you would still not have captured anything essential about life. We would still not know what it felt like to be an abstract painter in Greenwich Village in the Forties, for example, or, further uptown, what life was like for a young African-American girl growing up during the Harlem Renaissance.
Even if you attempted the odd, unrewarding task of naming everything you could possibly name, you would only have produced some massive and perhaps amazing inventory without, however, doing anything of human interest. You would not have increased our actual understanding or moved us even slightly. To increase our understanding and to move us, your task is a very different one from realistic description.
Your task is to create a world that serves your intentions. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, whether place is integral to your novel, your memoir, your travel guide, your history, or your biography, your job is to extract from what is real and add what is imagined. By extracting the real and adding the personal, just as a painter extracts and adds as he faces a lush landscape, you create something rich, resonant, and artful.
As a young reader, place no doubt gripped you. You wandered with Huck, Jim, and Mark Twain down an imagined Mississippi through an imagined America. You sat in a dreamy, leafy wood with a sleepy Alice, as shocked as she was when the White Rabbit bustled by with no time to spare. Maybe it was the Paris of Madeleine, the Transylvania of Dracula, the Illinois of young Abe Lincoln, or the moon of space exploration. You traveled intensely, blissfully, and vicariously—because a writer took you somewhere. Now you too can take your readers somewhere. You can take them, young and old, to the worlds you create. And, as you do, you yourself will be transported! That is the great joy of writing about place. Every world you create is a world that you yourself can inhabit and love.