WRITING KNOWHOW Choosing your setting

Illustration of a girl reading a book with different scenes around her

In the first of her new strand on settings, Jasbinder Bilan takes a look at some of the processes she uses to get deep into another world.

Creating a strong believable setting for your story is crucial if you want your readers to invest in your imaginary world.

When I wrote my MG novel Asha And The Spirit Bird, the setting was the first thing that came into my mind - think about where you want your story to take place and suddenly the other elements spring out of it in a very natural way. My story setting was a mix of a real place crossed with fiction, but a story location can also be totally imaginary.

I wanted to write a story that was set in the Himalayas, which are close to where I was born. I began by collecting my thoughts and memories of India and writing everything down in a very open, loose way in a sketchbook.

Photo of notebook
 Making notes and sketches help with creating setting

Don’t restrict yourself at this stage - you need to allow your mind to wander. Sometimes you won’t know why you remembered or thought of a particular smell, sound or image, but write it all down. Think of it as painting your setting with words. Go as deep as you dare! If your setting is a place close by you could go there with your story-head on and explore it as if you were experiencing it for the first time. I looked through lots of old black and white photographs and this helped to take me back to that precise moment with all its sights and sounds.

I also looked back at diaries I wrote when I visited India as an adult and re-imagined the vivid colours from the point of view of my main character, Asha. Begin by going for a walk in nature or, if you want an urban setting, through the city streets and start to think about the setting for your story. Take along a notebook, stop from time to time and write down your thoughts.

You are now ready to dive into the wonderful world of your story and begin to create your own setting. Even if it’s a real place you can now twist it so it becomes fired by your imagination!

Photo of title page of book ASha and the Spirit Bird

According to family stories, Jasbinder Bilan was born in a stable in the foothills of the Himalayas. Until she was a year and a half, she lived on a farm inhabited by a grumpy camel and a monkey called Oma. Jasbinder graduated from Bath Spa WYP where the seeds of her story were nurtured but it was the incredible bond with her grandmother, which was the inspiration for Asha And The Spirit Bird. She lives with her husband, two teenage boys and dog Enzo in a man pad and splits her time between teaching and writing.

The feature image is by freelance graphic designer, illustrator, and writer, Suzanne Dore. Suzanne graduated in fine-art, has completed many children’s book illustration online courses, and joined SCBWI in 2015. Longlisted twice for Undiscovered Voices, this year Suzanne is shortlisted for Templar Publishing’s 40th competition. She is currently unpublished and seeking an agent.

Helen Liston is Knowhow Editor, send her your suggestions for Knowhow topics to knowhow@britishscbwi.org.

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