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Literary Locales: What Great Books Teach Us About Setting

scene and settingWhether or not they mow their own lawns, writers need to be landscapers. The landscapes (aka settings or locales) of books, stories, and poems can be just as important as characters, plot, and prose style in making a creative work bloom.

We’ve written in the past about how to make your landscapes multitask within your narrative, so we thought we’d offer examples of famous novels with memorable landscapes (novels many of our well-read blog visitors know well!). Why are these landscapes appropriate to these books? Why do they resonate with readers? We can all learn something from the way super-skilled authors establish settings.

Do A Self-Check: Does your story or book have a setting that comes to life? That is a character in and of itself? How does the setting of your work stack up to these all-time greats?

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Chicago is a stellar setting of this 2003 debut novel that spawned a 2009 movie. Niffenegger spins out scenes in The Field Museum, a library, restaurants, punk-rock clubs (back in the day), and elsewhere. The Windy City is portrayed as a vibrant, appealing place—which makes it all the more poignant when involuntary time traveler Henry is continually yanked away from his home and his beloved Clare. He doesn’t even get the recompense of visiting 1908, when the hapless Cubs last won the World Series.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 novel, Detroit is an almost palpable character that adds immeasurably to the story. That’s because the city in Eugenides’ 1920s-to-2000s saga was and is as divided as Middlesex’s gender-conflicted protagonist. Black and white; poor and rich; run-down and gentrified; Detroit has many contrasts. And it doesn’t hurt that the author of this seriocomic novel is a Motown native who knows things like the need to travel south from Detroit to reach part of Canada.

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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In this 1939 classic, the Joads travel west from Oklahoma farm country to a hoped-for better life. Steinbeck wasn’t from the Sooner State, but he researched the heck out of the place before writing The Grapes of Wrath. His grimly magnificent depiction of drought-plagued, agribusiness-encroached Oklahoma rings true as he viscerally shows why the Joads have to leave the land they loved. And the word images Steinbeck paints of the lush California countryside make it especially heartbreaking when poor arrivals like the Joads get shut out of all that bounty. It’s a Golden State where the rich don’t play by the golden rule.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. There are countless writers who have set their novels in New York City, but few are as accomplished as Wharton. In this 1905 book, she tweaks the idle rich while chronicling the struggles of the not-quite-rich Lily Bart. Wharton’s descriptions of Fifth Avenue, city mansions, and lavish parties immerse readers in those sumptuous settings. The author periodically leaves this gilded milieu for scenes featuring the non-wealthy—giving the book even more depth. Wharton (nee Jones) was born into money herself; the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was reportedly first used to describe her father’s family.

setting craft and writing, MississippiAdventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. In this renowned 1884 novel, the Mississippi River and its environs come alive under the magical pen of Twain—a pre-Civil War pilot on that waterway. Twain contrasts the beauty of the Mississippi’s southern portion with the racism, scamming, and other not-so-beautiful things that happen in and near there. But the river is also a place to have fun—and for Jim to possibly find freedom from slavery.

 Here are some other books with a wonderful sense of place:
  • Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (Toronto)
  • Willa Cather’s My Antonia (Nebraska)
  • Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New Jersey)
  • Charles Dickens’ novels (London)
  • Janet Frame’s Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room (New Zealand)

If you have any creative writing with an element of place, you might want to check out these literary markets:

  • The Aurorean: Wants poetry of New England.
  • Blueline: Dedicates their issues to the spirit of the Adirondacks.
  • Big Muddy: Explores multidisciplinary issues and events concerning the 10-state area that borders the Mississippi River, from the United States/Canadian border to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.
  • Big Sky Journal: Looks for work about the Northern Rockies.
  • The Caribbean Writer: Reflects a Caribbean heritage, experience, or perspective.
  • The Common: Publishes fiction, essays, poetry, documentary vignettes, and images that embody particular times and places both real and imagined. In short, a modern sense of place.
  • Ecotone: Seeks to reimagine place. Each issue brings together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the biological, the urban and the rural.
  • Fourth River: Welcomes submissions of creative writing that explore the relationship between humans and their environments, both natural and built, urban, rural or wild.
  • Kartika Review: Publishes Asian Pacific Islander American fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and art.
  • Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood: Looks for essays that take place in New York City.
  • Philadelphia Stories: Wants short stories that take place in Philadelphia.
  • storySouth: Is interested in all types of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry by writers from the New South.
  • Windfall: Looks for poetry with a spirit of place, particularly the Pacific Northwest.


 Writer QuestionsQuestion: Which books do you admire for their sense of place?

4 Responses to Literary Locales: What Great Books Teach Us About Setting

  1. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx gives the reader such a real sense of Newfoundland. Proulx travelled there during her writing of the novel a number of times, staying there for months at a time. The way she writes about the place, and especially the character’s interactions with the setting come to life as you read the book.

  2. After reading Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, I feel I have been to Botswana. He does an excellent job of weaving the setting into his most entertaining stories.

  3. Even if I wasn’t a Potterhead, I would still say J.K. Rowling did an absolute stupendous job at creating setting in each and every book. I definitely admire her for the world she created…if only it were real.

  4. As weird of a world as it is, I’m fascinated by Panem from “The Hunger Games.” The way Suzanne Collins created this society that seems so distant but yet so relevant, with leaving no loose end of this dystopian world untied. A fantastic literary achievement.

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