December 15, 2016

Make Settings Come to Life with Sensory Details — Guest: Christina Delay

Picturesque town on a river with text: Bring Settings to Life with Details

The settings of our story can work on many levels. Settings provide a background to anchor the characters’ actions, establish a character by illuminating their point of view, and create a mood. Many of us can probably think of a book where the setting grew on us—much like another character—such as Hogwarts from the Harry Potter books.

We’ve talked before about how to add contrast and depth to our descriptions. But there’s another way to bring our settings to life and invite readers to immerse themselves in our story: layering unique details and sensory information.

(Notice how all those links above are guest posts? I’m still only marginal at this skill, so I call in experts to help us all. *grin*)

Today, I’m bringing back guest poster Christina Delay to share her tips on how to make our settings comes to life. Last month, Christina helped me out during NaNoWriMo by offering her Life Bank worksheet to find balance when we’re faced with too many demands (check out that awesome post if you missed it!), and she’s here again to talk about settings and how to enthrall readers.

Please welcome Christina Delay! *smile*


Breathe Life into Story with Authentic Setting

When I read a book, I often stop and analyze what draws me into the world and makes my own reality fall away. Almost every single time…it’s setting.

I love when an author uses setting to evoke a deeper feeling in the reader, or to reveal something about the character without ever saying what that thing is.

Setting is not just a visual tool. Setting is comprised of the senses, from what you see, smell, hear, tactually feel, even what you taste.

Setting is a powerful tool, a magic wand that can make your story come alive…or when not used properly, can suffocate your story until it can barely breathe.

Barely-Breathing vs. Alive-and-Kickin’

Let’s look at an example. This is a dumbed-down version of setting from USA Today Bestselling Author Jaye Wells’ Deadly Spells:

Snow lined either side of the sidewalk and a crow squawked in a nearby tree.

This is utilitarian. It gets the job done. It’s breathing. We know it’s cold outside and we have a small hint of something ominous or foreboding with the crow. We have two setting components: vision and sound.

But it feels rather two-dimensional, doesn’t it? I don’t get any feeling or real indication of the mood in my POV character, do you?

What Jaye Wells actually wrote was this:

Banks of snow lined either side of the sidewalk. Snow clouds overhead dampened sound; the only noise was my breathing, the clank of the flag’s hook against the pole, and the squawk of a crow in a nearby tree. The bird’s beady eyes tracked my progress toward the school.

See the difference? Jaye still only used two setting components—vision and sound—but the way she used them makes us sink into the story.

In my mind’s eye, I can see the banks of snow, I can feel that cold crispness that comes with snow, I can hear the quiet. And that clank of the flag’s hook amidst the rest of the setting—it adds a sense of loneliness to the scene. There might even be some guilt in our POV character, from the way the bird’s beady eyes track her progress.

Setting is not just what you can see. It is everything around you. It is the world as you experience it. To use this powerful tool properly, you must engage all the senses throughout your story.

Caveat: That is not to say that you should engage all the senses in each and every setting line in your story. Whew, that would be exhausting to read!

Imagined vs. Where-You-Live vs. Visited Setting

Have you ever had someone tell you, “Write what you know?”

Not only does that advice apply to your life experiences, it also applies to setting.

In the Jaye Wells example, do you think she could have imagined all those little nuggets of setting? If she’d never experienced a snowy day, do you think she could have come up with all of that? Could she have gotten to that level of imagery and feeling through looking at satellite images of snow banks through Google Earth? No! Of course not.

That author has experienced snow. She knows what snow does to her environment and how the world changes when it is snow-covered.

Our ability to use the power of setting boils down to our experiences. Whoever said, “Travel is good for the soul,” should have expanded it to be, “Travel is good for the soul and for authors who want their readers to disappear into the world they are creating.”

Let’s dive into three types of setting we have the ability to create.

#1: Imagined Setting

You may be thinking, “Imagined setting…like in fantasy or science fiction, right?” Yes…and no.

Imagined setting is the setting we must invent because we have never experienced it for ourselves.

If I were writing a book about an expedition to the South Pole, I would do research. I would watch videos, look at satellite images, read personal accounts, but I would never be able to drill into how it feels to be at 117 degrees below zero.

I could imagine the cold and the peril of those sorts of temperatures, I could even make that setting come alive, but to make it really resonate with readers and be the kind of setting that lets the reader glimpse in on that world, I’d need something close to a firsthand experience.

#2: Where-You-Live Setting

This is probably the easiest setting to write. It comes so natural we don’t even think about it. While our home setting may be familiar to us, it’s not to other readers.

For example, if I was writing a story in my hometown, I might write something like this:

It’s winter in Houston. The temperatures hover around an almost-freezing forty degrees, but girls still walk around wearing flip-flops with their sweatpants, complaining about the cold.

That’s a cultural setting thing you only get if you live here. Who wears flip-flops with sweatpants? Houston girls, that’s who.

It’s these little nuggets of information that make your setting go from barely-breathing to alive-and-kickin’. You allow the reader to be in-the-know about a place they’ve never been to, without ever leaving their reading spot.

Mary Kubica’s The Good Girl has a perfect example:

There’s the kitchen with the mustard-colored appliances and linoleum floors and a table covered in a plastic tablecloth. Dust covers everything in sight. There are spiderwebs and a layer of dead Asian beetles on the windowsills. It smells.

Each sentence in this example builds upon the previous. It’s like a pyramid, layers upon layers, each revealing something about the author.

Let’s break it down:

  • There’s the kitchen with the mustard-colored appliances and linoleum floors and a table covered in a plastic tablecloth.

We’ve got vision here. We can see this. This may remind us of our grandmother’s house, or that great-aunt we met once when we were seven. This is utilitarian, and it works. But Mary Kubica didn’t stop there.

  • Dust covers everything in sight.

Again, vision, but also it evokes smell. Maybe even touch. Dust covers everything. We know this. We’ve all experienced this. Cleaning out the basement or the attic. Home remodeling. Moving. We know that choking sensation of dust floating in the air and how it makes even the undersides of your nails feel gritty.

  • There are spiderwebs and a layer of dead Asian beetles on the windowsills.

Here’s where the little nugget hits us. A layer of dead Asian beetles on the windowsills. If you’ve ever lived in the mid-west during winter, you get this. If you haven’t, this nugget, this revealed secret, makes this setting come alive. Mary has opened a trapdoor into her world that the reader can fall into.

  • It smells.

And here’s the kicker. The last build and another secret revealed. Dead Asian beetles stink. Mary has had personal experience with dead Asian beetles. And now, you have that knowledge as well.

#3: Visited Setting

Visited setting is setting built from experiences from travel. It’s understanding that Venice smells like dog piss and stagnant water, even if you don’t understand all the shortcuts through Venice’s winding streets.

This is the author’s cheat-card. It’s my favorite cheat to use.

By using setting from our travels, we get the opportunity to build worlds for our readers that we’ve never lived in. Visited setting still allows us to reveal secrets to our readers, and with enough specificity you can transform that setting and those details into a powerful, can’t-put-it-down read.

New York Times Bestselling Author Christina Dodd has this type of setting in her romantic suspense, Virtue Falls.

The story takes place on the West Coast after an earthquake. There’s a resort on a cliff—and I have to believe that Christina Dodd has stayed on the West Coast at a resort perched on a cliff after reading this excerpt from Garik’s point of view:

Elizabeth’s bedroom matched Garik’s own—a richly textured gray carpet on the floor, blue satin drapes, a king-sized bed with tall bedposts, draped with silver gauze. Outside, the waves played music as they caressed the cliffs, tossed the pebbles on the beach, filled the tidal pools and drained them again. Inside, the half-moon slipped through the open windows like the pale scent of jasmine, perfuming the furnishings, the curtains, and especially Elizabeth’s sleeping figure, clad in a white T-shirt, sprawled under the white sheet.

There’s a richness here, a depth of detail that would be hard to get by looking at a picture. We can make an educated guess that Christina Dodd does not live on a resort. But, from that description, don’t you think she’s been to one? Maybe one that inspired this setting?

Let’s pick out the secrets Christina Dodd has revealed:

  • Richly textured gray carpet.

Gray isn’t a typical color for carpet. And it’s textured carpet—luxury. Already, we feel like we’ve got inside scoop. Here, Christina has used vision and touch.

  • The waves played music…caressed the cliffs…tossed the pebbles onto the beach…

We get sound from this. Maybe some vision, but mostly sound. If you’ve ever visited a beach, you can maybe hear the waves. Maybe even imagine the sound they make as the caress the cliffs. But I love this—tossed the pebbles onto the beach—it’s another secret. This isn’t soft sand. This is a pebble-strewn beach.

  • The pale scent of jasmine…

The air is fragrant here—another secret. Christina combined this sense of smell with vision and gave us a hint of our POV character’s mood.

There’s a lot more to dissect in this example, but we’ll stop there. What I hope you got from these examples is that without them, the story wouldn’t be as alive.

If Christina Dodd had written:

Elizabeth’s bedroom was the same as Garik’s—same gray carpet, same blue drapes, same king-sized bed. Outside, the waves crashed against the cliffs and Garik could smell the fragrant scent of jasmine.

…we wouldn’t have gotten the depth out of this story. Thankfully, Christina stuck to her experiences, and let us in by revealing secrets. Secrets she could only know if she had a firsthand experience.

Make Story Come Alive with Authentic Setting

The details we’ve been talking about are what pulls your reader in and doesn’t let them go. They are subtle, but vital. They add authenticity to your story no matter your genre.

Revealing secrets builds a connection to readers who have also visited that place. It lets your reader be on the same level—you and that reader are in-the-know. For everyone else, it solidifies that this world is real, even in its fictional state.

Google Earth is a great tool when we need to write about a place where we do not live and when we cannot travel…but it cannot replace visiting the setting of your story and bringing those tiny, quiet details into your fictional world. That specificity is the difference between been-there-read-that and drawing the reader in so completely, they don’t realize they’ve left reality.

Christina Delay

About Christina Delay:

Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. When she’s not cruising the Caribbean, she’s dreaming up new writing retreats to take talented authors on or writing the stories of the imaginary people that live in her heart.

About Cruising Writers:

Cruising WritersCruising Writers brings aspiring authors together with bestselling authors, an agent, an editor, and a world-renowned writing craft instructor together on writing retreats.

Go to France with us in April and stay in a historic chateau with Margie Lawson, agent Louise Fury, Shelley Adina, Kobo Writing Life, and Literary Translations.

Or cruise with us to Grand Cayman with Lisa Cron, Angela Ackerman, agent Michelle Grajkowski, and editor Deb Werksman of Sourcebooks!

Click here to learn more about all upcoming retreats!


Thank you for another great post, Christina! I love how you touch on the differences we might face in describing settings that we aren’t familiar with compared to those we are. Most articles don’t break down how we might approach those situations differently.

As Christina points out, unique sensory details not only create a mood but also give a sense of the character and pull readers into the experience of the story. Like in her very first example, a squawking crow isn’t unique, but a clanging flagpole hook breaking the quiet of a snowy landscape is unique, and as a result, that detail creates a richer experience for readers.

However, as an author who doesn’t have the means to travel to all the places where my stories take place, I want to share one other tip. *smile* (In fact, I used this method to double check my memory for places I do know.)

It’s true that experiencing a location first-hand can give us the best details, but research that gets us close to that firsthand experience is often the best we can do:

  • A photo can show only so much, but videos on YouTube or travel blogs might be able to help us out with the sounds, motions, and feel of a place.
  • Travel articles might touch on unique behaviors of locals or interesting factoids we can incorporate.

(And someday, I hope to take advantage of the writing retreats Christina organizes. Firsthand experience and opportunities to learn, pitch, and write? Yep, someday… *grin*)

As Christina mentioned in her Imagined Setting section above, our goal is to get as close to first-hand experience as we can. Yet, as her examples in the other sections demonstrate, we don’t need a page-worth of those unique details—just one or two can suffice.

So whether we’re using our own experience or relying on research, we can aim to include a couple of unique sensory details for each setting. Knowing that goal might even help direct our research, as we look for a few specific nuggets that capture our imagination.

With the right details, we’ll hopefully capture our readers’ imaginations too, immersing them more deeply into our story. Often, the best gift we can give to readers is a chance to experience something new. *smile*

Do experiential setting descriptions draw you deeper into stories? What types of details have captured your imagination? Have you ever traveled to deepen your storytelling? What are some of the ways your travels have inspired or influenced your books? Do you have any other setting-research tips? Do you have questions for Christina?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Christina Delay

Thank you for having me on today, Jami!

Renea Guenther
Renea Guenther

This was great article. I’ll have to keep hold of this one to put it to use in my writing.

Christina Delay

Hi Renea! So glad this was of use to you!


Excellent article. I absolutely agree that setting can make or break a novel, and it’s something I know I need to improve in my own writing. Thanks!

Christina Delay

Hi Iola!

It seems like just about everything can make or break a novel, doesn’t it?! Setting is something I really have to work at in mine, so I pay special attention when others do it really well!

Julie Glover

It makes such a difference to be there, if at all possible. But it is good that we have so many resources for research now. (Otherwise, historical authors would be up-a-creek-and-paddle-free.) Great article!

And I’ll see you in France! Hope others can join us.

Christina Delay


Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Yes, immerse the reader in the setting… but not all the time as you will need to pick up the pace. Some writers go for gritty realism while others favour a lighter mood when setting scene.

Laurie Evans

Thanks for this. I appreciate the examples and breakdowns. Saving.

Bella Ardila

Can you tell me how to deal with overdetailed setting in one paragraph? Because my editor said that I wrote overdetailed setting in my novel


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