Writing Setting

I think all writers often see their work playing like a movie in their minds. I know the exact layout of each place, what everyone is wearing, and what the background music must be. I am a writer who believes firmly in the philosophy, “don’t write about a place you haven’t lived in”.

The settings of my novel— that I will call ‘V’ for secrecy’s sake— are Cape Cod and Manhattan. These are two places I have spent extensive time in and can call second homes. I wanted the world to breathe, to feel lived in. I also wanted my two main characters to have very different opinions of New York. To one of them it is a glamorous home and to the other a claustrophobic nightmare. I wanted to conjure the splendor of old money wealth right alongside the seeping trash and horrible summer humidity.

Golden Manhattan

Very old money glamor, weekends in the Hamptons. Too much time staring wistfully at paintings in the Met. Too much shopping at Bergdorf Goodman’s and excessive dinners at The Russian Tea Room.

I wanted to create a dreamscape Manhattan. One that may not exist, and if it does, is only for the American elite. A city full of old 90s glamor and a gilded underbelly of corruption. It’s all glitter, greenery, and bombastic blue skies. In this Manhattan, there are sprawling libraries, soaring galleries, and clean city streets. In this Manhattan, the only things that go bump in the night are the result of too much champagne. It is so beautiful it becomes grotesque.

This also serves as an introduction to one of my two main characters, who I will simply call for this sake, Golden. She has always reminded me of The Truman Show.

Longing Cape Cod

The other half of my story takes place exclusively in memory. It’s Cape Cod in a lucid dream. Sunny lens flares and echoing seagulls. It’s a lost, idealised home long turned to ash.

This Cape Cod is hazy, heady, and dusty with with motes of light. Everything’s a bit blurry, like it’s been cycled through a wash and crumpled at the edges. Worn with love. If returned to in reality, it would not exist. For my character, nostalgia is a drug that overpowers the senses. It feeds on the edges of everything.

And now I will create an alias for my second character. We will call him Longing. He has always reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The only way to live in your setting is to live in your characters. Entrench yourself in their emotional connections to the place. Setting can be just as powerful a presence as a well-rounded protagonist. What do they love about the place? What do they detest about it? Pack the place with little details you noticed when you were there. I wrote about the 116th subway station, Fifth Avenue at Christmas, and an apartment at the Beresford because I’ve walked those places myself. Provincetown, on the tip of the Cape, is filled for me with amazing nostalgia. Deeply rooting setting in what you know is key to rooting a possibly outlandish novel.

World-building is not just for fantasy writers. When setting is carefully built, you end up with writing that is both deeply personal and specific. Write what moves you. Infuse the page with what it feels like to walk where you have walked.

NOTE: All images in this post are not mine.

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