Know your place: how to get perspective on a book’s setting

Willy Vlautin, Catherine O’Flynn and Paul Lynch discuss the importance of a novel’s setting

The humidity of Faulkner's south; the moors of Wuthering Heights; the leafy lanes of John McGahern's novels. Reading a story with an ingrained sense of setting is almost like walking its landscape. A novelist who can locate a reader in a very specific place can offer an immersive experience.

Like all the components of a story – character, story, tone – it can be difficult to approach place separately. Just how important is setting?

Paul Lynch, author of Red Sky in Morning and The Black Snow, offers a test. "Here's a little thought experiment. Imagine your life, but while doing so, remove entirely where you are now. Tricky, isn't it? You cannot exist out of context. Why would your characters be any different? In my own writing, I use sense of place not just to locate the reader in the world I'm writing about, but also to alienate them from the real world they are in."

If place is so central to a story, writers can either stand at page one with a compass in hand or write their way into a landscape of their own imagination. For American writer Willy Vlautin, setting percolates in his mind before any other aspect of the book.


“I always have the place in mind years before I start a book. It’s in the fabric of the first bit of the first idea. That’s the most fun of the work, daydreaming about the place you’re going to write about. If you’re certain about place and comfortable with it, it’ll just seep into your sentences.”

Catherine O'Flynn has set work in very specific places: a shopping centre in her Costa-winning novel, What Was Lost, and a TV station in The News Where You Are. Her latest book, Mr Lynch's Holiday, takes place mostly in Spain.

“In most novels a sense of place from the very beginning is inevitable. Characters and story don’t exist in a void and there’s usually some sense of place, no matter how sketchy.

"Sometimes it's good to start with a tight focus on just one feature – a section of dialogue – and then zoom out to reveal the characters or setting more gradually. Or the other way around, like the opening shots of Paris, Texas – all landscape and then a gradual closing in on the character."

Place is not just a geographical meeting point for characters, nor is it a solitary hook to hang a story. Willy Vlautin has documented small lives in big cities, from Las Vegas in Northline to Portland, Oregon, in Lean on Pete. He frames stories of struggle and working-class life within a tough urban landscape. "Most of my novels are set in places that I dream about, places I wish I was or places I've spent a lot of time in. It's one of the great gifts of writing: you can have concentrated time in places you wish you could be in but can't.

“In general I think if you’re in love with a place, even if you’ve only spent a brief time there, it’ll come across in a book.” Vlautin has used real places in his work, and has become something of a contemporary chronicler of the American west.

In his latest book, he changed tack and, for the first time, moved away from a very specific, identifiable setting. "The Free is set in a nameless town in the Pacific northwest of the US. That it was nameless and mostly featureless was done on purpose. It was written to be a town like any other anywhere. Meaning the story could happen anywhere – that it does happen everywhere. In general, a strong sense of place is its own character, it carries with it an entire map of ideas and visions and emotions."

Psychological distance

Paul Lynch grew up in a remote part of Donegal, so it's not surprising that his imagination strayed back there for his two novels. He lives in Dublin, and feels that the geographical and psychological distance has helped him to shape a version of that corner of the country.

“Donegal has featured strongly in my writing, but it is the Donegal of my imagination. I try to evoke the feeling of a place stirred by memory and distance. I can’t write about what is around me. I need distance in order to reimagine it.

“All place setting is a form of reimagining, even if you are trying to write about a place realistically. The challenge when writing about place, real or imagined, is consistency.”

Secondary research and imagination will inform where you write about, but it may not necessarily evoke the area. When writing Mr Lynch's Holiday, O'Flynn found that, despite looking at photos and reading articles, her fictional Spanish town wasn't coming to life. "What was lacking wasn't just a clear sense of the exact topography, it was the connection or spark that would excite me and make me want to spend the next two years of my life writing about it.

“I went back to Spain and drove around the outskirts of Sitges, until I found the kind of place I had in mind. I spent an afternoon walking around and experiencing the stillness and the buzzing electricity substation and I loved it, I was fascinated, I wanted to write books about it.”

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  • Start with a tight focus on one feature before zooming out to reveal characters or setting – or start with landscape, then close in on the character.
  • If you're in love with a place, that will come across.
  • Distance from a place can help you to reimagine it.
  • Consistency is one of the biggest challenges when writing about place.