The ‘Where’ in a Novel: How to Portray Setting When You Can’t Get There

SETTING in writingYou may have read this over on J.Q.’s blog. I wanted to repost for those who missed it. While I refer to Book 1 in my trilogy, setting is critical to all books (I’m working on the final one now) so it remains highly appropriate:

I want to thank J.Q. over at Focus on Story for helping me to kick off my newest prehistoric fiction, Survival of the Fittest.  It is Book 1 in the trilogy, Crossroads. The most challenging part of writing this book–by far–was the setting–it takes place 850,000 years ago! When I wrote my two thrillers–To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days–these happened in present day, giving me three surefire ways to explore the location:

  • Google it–plug wherever I needed into the search engine and sort through the hits.  I knew enough about the setting (say, Chesapeake Bay) that I could sort reliable from opinion.
  • Talk to fellow writers–there are many people willing to share their knowledge. A search for topical forums or blogs usually turned up someone with direct knowledge of the setting I struggled with (like where students at Columbia University liked to congregate).
  • Use Google Earth and its Streetview functions–I’ve written about this in the past because it is an amazing way to explore settings, see what’s on the street characters walk down, to explore obstacles characters face in a park they must run through, or to understand how far apart are places they must drive to. Searching on Google Earth and then dumping yourself into Street View gives you the most authentic experience available, almost like being there.
  • Use Google Earth’s Time Slider–by sliding the bar, you can reshape geography and geopolitics to be what it was long ago–up to a couple hundred years. If you’re writing about the recent past, this is an amazing feature.

But none of these work for my newest prehistoric fiction because it takes place 850,000 years ago. Back then, mountains were plateaus, and savanna was jungle. Even the shorelines and fjords of continents were not like they are today. Since my characters walked from China to Spain along first the Indian Ocean and then the Mediterranean Sea, I went to great lengths to be accurate about what they faced. Because I couldn’t use any of the options above, I talked to experts in the field, researched best-guesses, and extrapolated from everything I could find. It took a long time which might explain why the book took over a decade to write.

How do you make sure that the locations your characters visit in your books are as accurately represented as possible?

More on setting

Use Photos to Develop Your Novel

Setting is Not a Place, it’s an Emotion

How to Write Descriptions People Want to Read: Nature

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Against All Odds, Winter 2020. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning


63 thoughts on “The ‘Where’ in a Novel: How to Portray Setting When You Can’t Get There

  1. My daughter was just showing me Google Earth because of a project she’s doing for school. We typed in our home address and it was so funny to see the photo of our house–dated, because it was before we got the new garage door, lol! The internet can be a pain, but in cases like this, it’s beyond amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I didnt know about the time scaler. It is good, since I am writing historical fiction mostly. I used all kind of chronicles, memoirs, movies, youtube-filmed scenery, reenacting scenes, google maps with satelllite view, etc. I received congratulations from people who had seen some of the places I have described without having the opportunity to visit them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love how it shows the development of cities and towns, and the changes in the verdure of areas. Startling, to say the least! You sure know you’re doing something right when you get congrats for your settings. Kudos, Marina!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jacqui – that’s why I’d never write a novel … but I must say I’ve picked up ideas since I’ve been blogging – but nope: I ain’t going to write a novel, or a series!! But I love the learning – and highly admire you for doing what you’ve done … it’s pretty incredible. There are a lot of suppositions out there today – which must to a point make it easier … but yet – you’re doing your ‘best-guessing’ …. congratulations though on having completed the story though … 850,000 years is a long time! Cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This has always been a double-edged sword for me. Yes, it’s great to have a new or exotic setting for your story, but I’ve read many books where it came out clear that the author had no personal knowledge of the place they were describing. “The Historian” comes to mind as a work that reads like a lonely planet book. I think if you’re going to choose a setting you’ve never been to, you just need to be prepared to do the full research.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Have you seen on twitter @MapPornTweet? They put up maps from all sorts of timeframes. Recently it was 1100AD (I know that is way after you, but they might put up somethings that are relevant).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Using Streetview is great. I’ve done that before, to get a feel for the place, or even to be better able to describe the scene. Since some of my novels take place in wilderness areas where Streetview doesn’t go (even though I have been to these remote places myself), I used the satellite view in Google maps to remind myself of some of the physical features of the setting. Works fine.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve used the Google Earth feature many times – very useful. The Earth Time Slider? How did I not know about this cool tool?! I’m also a big fan of topographic maps. I know, so last century.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t know about Google Earth Time Slider. What a cool research tool for writers. Your research for your prehistoric fiction is fabulous, Jacqui. I have it a little easier and can just make things up. Ha ha. (Though when I pick a climate/terrain, I do research realistic plants, animals, food sources, etc). Fun post. Happy Writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I ended up digging into Great Apes, orangutans, primitive tribes–all so I could extrapolate what my characters were like back then. And don’t even start me on setting. All I had for that was rocks, paleo-climate, and artifacts. Sigh. But it was fun, I have to admit.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Jacqui, what did writers do before google?! 😀 Great tips for research and everyone likes to talk about places they’ve visited or lived so a good idea to search out bloggers etc who are knowledgeable about a certain place!

    Liked by 1 person

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