Posted in Writing

Choosing your story’s setting

While all stories necessarily start with an idea instead of coming fully-blown and detailed, they can’t go anywhere if that generating idea isn’t developed or chosen well. And a not unimportant part of that idea is the setting.

Things to consider:

1. Is there a special reason you like this setting? Unless it absolutely has to be set there, maybe your story would work just as well in Dallas, San Diego, Pittsburgh, or New Rochelle as it would in Boston or Manhattan.

2. You’re not beholden to only writing exactly what you know. I hate how so many TV and movie writers set their stories in NYC and LA because that’s where they live(d). Good writers know how to research unfamiliar places, and don’t feel limited to their hometowns.

3. Speaking of, NYC is a lazy default setting! As much as I love reading and writing about the city when normal people could afford to live there and comfortably raise families in realistically-sized apartments, there are so many other awesome U.S. cities to choose from. Like, did the new Apple TV cartoon Central Park really have to be set in NYC? Could the writers think of no other parks?

4. Don’t randomly choose your setting! I wish I’d chosen a different hometown than Abony for my Hungarian characters. While I ultimately found enough pertinent information, it’s not nearly as copious and easy to find as for, e.g., Debrecen, Miskolc, Munkács, Szeged, or Kisvárda.

5. Think outside major cities. There’s lots of happy medium between huge metropolis and tiny hamlet. While it’s easier to find information about bigger cities, there’s plenty of easily-accessible information about other places too.

6. What best fits your characters? An artist or intellectual would thrive in Budapest, New Rochelle, or Boston, whereas an introvert, nature-lover, or someone with an adventurous spirit might feel more at home in a farming village, Hawaii, or Denver.

7. Think about predominant housing modes. Very densely-populated cities offer little choice but apartments, and even if one can afford a townhouse, the backyards typically aren’t that big. If your characters aren’t apartment people, they’ll be very unhappy longterm. Likewise, someone used to city life will be bored stiff by a small town.

8. Think outside of clichés. E.g., instead of yet another immigrant story set in the Lower East Side or San Francisco’s Chinatown, why not St. Louis, Glasgow, Dublin, Toronto, Seattle, Hawaii, or Vancouver? Or maybe your 1950s story can be about people choosing to buck national trends by remaining in a city or moving to a farm instead of hightailing it to suburbia.

9. Small towns and villages aren’t necessarily devoid of dramatic potential. It just won’t be the same type of story in a large city.

10. If you fall out of love with your setting, don’t light the whole thing on fire and force everyone to start all over again elsewhere. Figure out why you feel this way. Maybe they moved to a remote village to escape trauma, or they moved to a big city to become anonymous after experiencing the worst of smalltown attitudes. They could move to a different neighborhood or nearby larger city, or scale back their farm and turn a passionate hobby into a successful business.

11. Don’t show off when writing about a familiar city. No one cares about your intricate knowledge of local bands, bus schedules, street names, and business districts!

12. Even if a neighborhood or town is fictitious, the real world still exists outside. It’s unrealistic if your characters never leave their home base.

13. Cities evolve over time. The neighborhood you know as mainly Jamaican or Korean today may have been mostly Italian or Irish in the 1930s. While Atlantic City has a rather small Jewish community today, it was huge and vibrant till the postwar exodus to suburbia.

14. Even if you end up choosing an über-popular city like NYC, look beyond the most popular neighborhoods. How many books are set in Queens Village, Inwood, or Staten Island vs. Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn Heights?

15. Above all, be open to change. Don’t feel beholden to stay with a city you can’t find enough detailed information about, or because it was in your original outline.


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

2 thoughts on “Choosing your story’s setting

  1. Very good advice! I once used a setting of Chicago for the setting of a science fiction story that took place in 1964. The story involved laser development and I had read something about work that had been done in Chicago at the time so that seemed like a good setting. I really poured myself into researching Chicago at that time which was kind of fun. I wanted every detail to be right.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Liked by 1 person

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