Posted by: Kerry Gans | December 30, 2014

Setting: A Sense of History


Mount Vernon, Virginia

A couple of weekends ago, my family went to Mount Vernon in Virginia. For those who don’t know, Mount Vernon is the family home of the first U.S. President, George Washington. He was born there, and he died there.

The house and outbuildings have been beautifully restored. Each room had a personality all its own, yet the overall reflection of its most famous owner was unmistakable. From the faux-stone siding to the bright green paint in the dining room, the house radiated wealth without hubris, strength without intimidation.


Potomac River from the veranda

The sweeping view of the river took my breath away, and the rolling hills of the farm made the 21st century disappear.

So why am I telling you all this?


Tulip Poplar planted by Washington in 1785

Because when I stood in George Washington’s house, when I heard the wind rustling through trees Washington planted, when I saw the quarters of the slaves, I felt history crawl through my bones. The weight of time pressed on me, and the very land whispered of time long past.

As writers, our settings need to have that sense of history—at least to us. When world-building, our lands must have a past, and that past exists in the present in myriad ways. The past of the place carries into the future, just like scars and events in our characters’ lives continue to affect them long after they are gone.


Slave quarters

This sense of history is most important in fantasy or sci-fi novels, where nothing is familiar to the reader. But it is important is every setting, from a quiet rural town to a teeming city. Events that happen in a place impact the people living there, and the memory of such events can change a neighborhood.

I say all this as a hypocrite, because in my writing my setting is usually very sparse in early drafts. My critique partners never know where they are, poor souls, and they often tell me they have no real sense of place. I usually manage to bring my settings to an acceptable level, but I need to do a better job. Perhaps what I learned at Mount Vernon will help me do that.

When you write, how do you handle setting? Do you delve into the past of your setting, or wing it as you go along?




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