Think about a story you've written. Where is it set?
Now think about where you live. In the city, the countryside, a small town, a suburban hub? A farm, a trailer, an apartment, a cottage, a motor home? In North America, or Asia, or Chile?
Some of us naturally write stories set where we live. In the vegetable patch in back of our farmhouse, or in the driveway of our one-storey suburban house, or the elevator to our twenty-fifth storey penthouse.
Other writers pick a location that's as exotic as possible. If they live in Canada, they'll set their story in Thailand or Bengal or Nigeria. (Or, if they're from Nigeria and live in Wales, like Atinuke, author of the lovely Anna Hibiscus series, they'll write a story set - in part - in Canada!)
While writing about a place you DO know well may sound dull, the truth is that some of the most-loved children's books take place in settings that are very similar to places the authors live or lived. Places they know well, almost like the back of their own hand.
And the good news is that wherever you live, it's bound to be exotic to somebody.
Right now, I'm visiting Toronto with my family, after nearly two years living in Israel. This is my home town; I grew up here.
Toronto certainly doesn't feel exotic to me after such a short time away. Yet I do feel like a tourist here, gawking at the CN Tower and Skydome, riding the streetcars and subways with pride, exploring its urban and suburban jungles.
I have suddenly realized, walking these streets, that I could write about these things in a way I never could when we lived here. This local setting - though it once seemed mundane to me - now feels fun and interesting enough for any story.
Can you look at where you live like a tourist would? What's interesting? What stands out? How could you help a reader feel at home with the "exotic" sights and sounds of your everyday world?
Here are some awesome story setting ideas you can find just by going outside and looking around:
- Public transportation: how do people get around where you live? On horseback, or by subway? By boat, or by motorcycle? Here in Toronto, we have subways and buses; in Israel, I travel more by train.
- Where kids hang out: beyond schools and parks, where’s an adventuresome spot that kids might be spending time? The Magic Tree House series starts out in a treehouse two children find in the woods near their home.
- Where kids aren’t allowed: if there’s a neighbourhood spot or an area of the city where kids aren’t allowed to go, think about setting a story there to up the jeopardy and excitement.
- Recreation: besides school and home, perhaps your area has a local 4-H or a Brownies or Girl Guides/Scouts group? Is there a swimming pool, or skating rink – or maybe a watering hole (if kids still splash in those unsupervised!)
- Spending money: whether your local area has a glittering shopping mall or a dingy convenience store, showing your characters spending their money reveals much about the setting as well as their own personality.
The trick is to blend in the exotic touches without being too obvious or intrusive. Here are a few quick questions to help you incorporate local touches into any story:
- Local colour - quite literally. Are the houses red brick, white clapboard, faded grey wood, or something else entirely?
- Local sounds - Are there birds singing in the woods nearby? Are trucks honking their horns? School bells ringing out, or maybe church bells? Show the sounds in your story to share the setting more intimately.
- Nature - Are there tall trees where your story's set, or just a few straggly weeds? Do your characters have manicured gardens, or fields of daisies?
- Dress - Are the people in your story wearing uniforms, work clothes, or the latest fashions? What season are they dressed for? Where I live in Israel, you'd never see children in snowsuits as they do in Robert Munsch's Thomas's Snowsuit.
It can be tricky to write about a place you don't know well.
William Shakespeare set his stories in locales like Venice, Denmark and Greece - places he'd never visited himself. In those days, it was okay, because people didn't really know much about those places.
Nowadays, there's a good chance that your book will be read by real Thai or Bengal or Nigerian or Canadian people - so your details had better be spot-on accurate.
The good news is that you don't have to go far beyond your front door to find a setting for your story. Show me your world, through your eyes, and you won't need to make stuff up to hook me as a reader.
Why go farther afield when you just need to step outside to beat the blahs and immerse yourself in a world that is as exotic, fun and fascinating as you choose to make it?