Creating a Realistic Setting in Fiction Work

Creating a realistic setting doesn’t happen automatically when you write a story. Yet it’s one of the essential components to draw readers into your story so they can walk among the characters. Today I’ll share some ways you can simplify building this imaginary world and make it more real for your readers.

Composite Method of Creating a Realistic Setting

Sometimes to get the perfect setting you need to combine aspects from different places you know or imagine. For example in a fictional town I created, I based the one in Litchfield, Minnesota, the town where my mom’s side of the family lives. I visited Litchfield frequently growing up. Each summer I looked forward to tromping through the town with my little sister, sitting in the band shell and even going to the town’s small history museum. However, that museum wasn’t the one on which I based the museum in my fictional town. That museum was the Homesteader Museum in Powell, Wyoming. And while different, I got the idea for the diner in my story, from Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Creating a composite isn’t only done in literary art. Any creative endeavor can utilize composites. A couple of years ago I was asking Minnesota artist, Kim Norlien’s wife, about her husband’s process. She said that he often uses this method to create his beautiful paintings.

Transposition Method of Creating a Realistic Setting

If you want creating a realistic setting to be really simple, the transposition method might be the easiest way method. You describe a place that is much like the setting you want for your story. It should be a place which you know well, such as the city in which you live (right down to the local Wal-Mart). If you want your book to be fiction, just change the names of the city, businesses, and roads. This way you don’t have to worry about someone nitpicking those details. At the same time, you can describe the sights, sounds, and smells you experience as you go through your day.

World Building Method of Creating a Realistic Setting

World building has long been used by fantasy and science fiction writers to make the settings in their stories come alive. You can use this method in more realistic genres, as well. One thing to keep in mind, as you build a world from scratch, is to take great notes. You want to be consistent throughout your story so that the most observant reader can take in your story without the distraction of noticing details that are out of place. You’ve likely had the experience of watching a TV show and one camera shot has an actor with an unbuttoned jacket and in the next shot, one of the jacket’s buttons has mysteriously fastened itself due to an inconsistent wardrobe between takes.  Here are some other examples of mishaps:

  • In at least one episode of the Gilmore Girls the streets suddenly becoming wet when in the shot from a minute earlier they are bone dry with not a cloud in the sky.
  • In Doctor Strange, the title character shoves everything off of the table in a fit of rage and a moment later, some of the table’s contents are back in their original place.
  • Even at Christmas time, on That 70’s Show, the trees and the grass is green and they are able to be outside without their winter coats—in Wisconsin!

The same thing can happen in your books if you aren’t careful.

Of course, setting is only one aspect of world building. Creating a world includes inventing entire cultures. But, it starts with atmosphere, and that means, setting. How do you create a realistic setting? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About Heather Erickson

My Family
The Erickson Family, Photo by Everbranch Photography

I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace. My books are available at

The Memory Maker’s Journal 

Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer

Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer

I also blog about living with cancer at Facing Cancer with Grace.

4 thoughts on “Creating a Realistic Setting in Fiction Work”

  1. Good suggestions, every one. I love settings in towns I know but I can see the problem–that a detail is wrong or a restaurant characters ate at goes out of business (that happened to me!). Excellent alternatives.

    • Hi Jacqui, over time, dated details can be nostalgic for people familiar with the setting. Those who aren’t familiar don’t know the difference. It’s tough, though, when we know the truth 😉

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