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Learn to write setting in a 900-year-old monastery

The workshops in southern Puglia are open. Learn to Write Setting starts 30 October.

As part of the workshop, you’ll spend a week:

  • Learning the techniques of writing setting well, including how to incorporate sensory and imagery detail and use setting to drive conflict

  • Experiencing a unique, lesser-known side of Italy and touring Puglia for inspiration

  • Learning how to give and receive feedback in a workshop or writing group

  • Meeting new people

  • Working in a calm, open & supportive environment where you can take creative risks

  • Staying in the palazzo pictured below

Why setting? Because it’s such a powerful tool. Setting is one of the core elements of storytelling, along with character, plot and theme. And what better way to think about and work on writing about place than in a 900-year-old former convent (pictured below)?

Genre writers understand setting and deploy it exceptionally well. They have to. Fantasy and Science Fiction require extensive world-building. Writers working outside these genres would be wise to learn from them.

Here’s a selection of fantasy writer Jeff Vandermeer’s characteristics of a “well-realised setting”:

  • Coherent & consistent logic

  • Built-in wider cause & effect

  • Good & strategic uses of specific detail

  • Impacts the characters’ lives

  • Layered & complex

  • Multicultural

Setting, according to Vandermeer, “is not just about creating colourful stages for your characters…[it is] part of what is taking place.”

Last week, in our interview, writer Francesco Dimitri reflected on his home region of Puglia:

Humans are part of nature, part of the landscape: we are nature as much as rocks and swallows and stray cats are ‘nature’. One of the things I do in my writing is explore how the landscape in which I grew up made me. A key point we share is that we are both full of contradictions. This is a land of stark sunshine and deep shades, of open-hearted hospitality and long feuds. Those contradictions can be really hard to navigate, but they make for an intense experience of life.

Both writers tell us that setting is character, plot and theme. It gives the writer tools to heighten conflict, drive home the theme and reveal details about characters through their lived-in environment.

In his excellent book of essays, The Art of Fiction (first serialised in The Washington Post), David Lodge traces the evolution of setting in English language literature. Until Charles Dickens, setting was used metaphorically. In classic literature, cities and locales are interchangeable. Dickens shows the reader London, describing it in sensory detail and examining its impact on characters.

Virginia Woolf’s excellent essay “A Street Haunting” goes a step further. She celebrates the idea of writing setting during a winter evening’s stroll in London, with overt references to conservation.

No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: "Really I must buy a pencil," as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter--rambling the streets of London.

As Woolf proves, you needn’t go far to find inspiration. Your house, street and neighbourhood contain more than enough detail to work with. What do you see on your daily walk, or if that’s not an option, what do you see when you leave your house?

Note what you see: nature, animals (including humans), architecture and infrastructure.

Try the prompt below:


Think of a scene you’ve yet to write or have already written. Where does it take place? Detail the following outside the draft and then go back and ask yourself are these questions answered in the scene:

  • If you already have a setting in mind, do the following:

  • What’s the physical setting: A forest? A dense city? Low-density suburbs?

  • How do the natural and built environments interact with each other?

  • What’s the climate, and how does the weather match it (or not) when the scene is taking place

  • What kind of sensory detail does the setting have? What do the characters notice?

  • Detail one beautiful and one ugly aspect of the setting

  • How do the characters in the setting feel about it: love/hate/ambivalent?

  • Hint: give different characters different feelings that conflict with each other

  • Obstacle or aid:

  • How does the setting serve as either an obstacle or an aid to what one of the characters wants?

  • For example, if the character lives in a big, crowded city but wants to become a farmer, how would she feel about the city? How does her world keep her from realising her dreams?

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