Giving Your Reader Setting Up Front

‘Tavern Interior’ by Cornelis Pietersz Bega

One of the greatest pleasures and direst pains of being a speculative fiction writer is the world building. There is far too much advice on world building to fit in a single concise article, so for now I’m going to touch only on a problem that occurred in a submission last month, then again in another this month.

There is the convenient and well-used template of the medieval European setting for fantasy. It’s so commonly used that readers are quite familiar with it. It is this familiarity which can cause the problem we’re addressing today.

So, the story starts in a stable or a tavern. As a reader, your mind has probably immediately coloured in the medieval European setting. The problem is, stables exist in Victorian settings, Edwardian settings, heck I can drive down the road from my house here in 2017 and get to a stable in 5 minutes. I can get to a tavern in even less time (yes, it actually calls itself a tavern).

But as a reader many of us are so used to stables and taverns as medieval European based fantasy staples, that’s what we think of first. And if you don’t dissuade the reader from that initial assumption fast, they’re going to be sharply thrown from the story when your character cracks out a tin of baked beans for dinner twenty pages later.

So what can you do to help make that setting clear as early as possible? Well, first ask ‘do I need to make my opening scene in the stable/tavern?’. Could you set it in a Victorian drawing room complete with furniture iconic to the era, or a dressing room filled with era-specific clothes?

What if the story NEEDS the opening scene to be in the stable or tavern? Consider placing something era-distinctive there to set it apart. You could put a bicycle against a wall. It could even be a penny farthing if that’s your era. In the tavern, could someone complain the food tastes tinned, not farm fresh?

What if your story is medieval, but not European? Same ideas. Are those camels in the stables, not horses, or – if you’re going for something yet more distant from the norm – magically-bridled hell hounds?

Give your reader something early on to help establish that yours isn’t a stock-standard setting. Ground them, or at least let them know from the start that this really is a different world so they can look forward to seeing what tropes you’re going to flip, what surprises you have in store for them.

About Kirstie Olley

Kirstie Olley was the President of Vision Writers Group during 2015-2018, has had ten short stories published since joining the group in 2012, has been a finalist in the Aurealis Awards and received multiple honourable mentions in the Writers Of The Future contest. She also blogs and has free fiction at her website
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