When we get on the Google Hangout to tape this show on setting, Tommy appears in this ridiculously ornate, immaculate, stunning room, with frescoes on the ceiling and detailing in every tiny crevice, and (probably) this tiny man who runs around sweeping any speck of dust, and Tommy says “This is my classroom.” (He’s teaching in Florence, Italy at the moment.)

Jody can’t make it because she’s in her office at school, doing her actual job like a responsible person.

And Baker’s down in his windowless dungeon basement, where everything is just slightly moist and the landlord’s purple walls stand there bouncing every sound like a game of Pong.

Before we even say anything, it’s clear how powerful setting is.  Especially in fiction.

Dark Sky Over A Blue Sea

We’ll be setting our next novel here. So we can do that “research.”

In this episode, we go far and wide about the power of place and setting in fiction.  We dig into: how setting is a collaboration between writers and readers, and “little dabs of paint” might be all you need; the traps of making up setting during your first drafts; ways that place can deepen a story through their historical baggage; and lots more.   


In the show, we talk about this stuff:

  • Using the “exploded chicken” method of delivering setting with a single, perfect detail
  • Writing setting is akin to an impressionist painter
  • BEWARE THE INFO DUMP. Even when establishing setting in science fiction, or post-apocalyptic stories, or other books in imaginary settings, a little goes a long way.
  • If you can, use places that have a deep history to them, even if the history’s a bad one.  The right setting can influence the characters and tensions, through its backstory and culture.  Setting can work like a character that way.
  • Setting can deepen and layer the tensions and characters in a story, if you choose it right. The story might be okay in a different place, but the right setting adds TONS of meaning.
  • Landscape and weather can change a lot about a story.  Whatever problems the characters face, the natural world can make them a hell of a lot worse real quick.
  • Setting should be active, like a character.  Stories that could take place anywhere are too bland.
  • If you write a lot, look out for the “setting rut,” where you’re reproducing the same basic story by not changing the setting. Tommy feels Richard Russo does this. (But, you know, being compared to Russo ain’t all bad…)
  • Setting isn’t set in stone.  You can move a story to a better setting on the fifth, or sixth, or twenty-ninth draft.
  • You can’t fake research as a writer. If you want to set a story in a place you haven’t been, you’ve got to do a lot of research to make it feel real.
  • Nothing beats firsthand experience in research. Accents, tiny details, landscape, weather, local businesses.  Get the real taste to bring it to the page.
  • Even if you don’t use it all, the research helps the story.  Good research into setting is like Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, that 7/8ths of the research is hidden underwater, but the 1/8th that makes it to the page can’t work without the unseen part.
  • Can you be too close to your setting? If you’re from Wichita, and you’re writing the great book about Wichita, and the title is Wichita, you might be too close to the setting to see it with a critical eye.
  • With setting and most everything else about fiction, the writer’s brain has to work as an insider and outsider at the same time.
  • Tommy talks about being God.  (And by that he means that he’s creating a setting from scratch in his current book, Armageddon, Texas.)  When you’re playing God with setting, 1st person point of view comes in handy by shrinking the window.  And also: DRAGON.
  • Setting can also let the writer plant easter eggs for themselves, mentioning specific places you love.  Instead of “restaurant,” say “Archibald’s” and instead of “coffee shop,” say “Atomic Coffee.”  (Or some specific name from wherever your story’s set.)
  • And finally, here’s the length we go to suffer for our art on the podcast: Tommy’s Samson microphone was pulled out and checked every time he went through customs on his way to Italy.  That’s right: Fiction School was almost an international incident. Yes!

Happy writing, y’all.