For me, traveling is part of the job of being a writer. (Hello, tax deductions… 😉 ) Not only because vacations are refreshing to the mind and spirit, but also because they help me create a storehouse of places and experiences to draw upon when I’m brainstorming and writing.
While I appreciate facts and accuracy in fiction, I prefer writing made-up settings to real ones. Even when I choose a real life location, like Big Bend National Park in Fatal Flashback, I often find it necessary to sacrifice some of the true setting details for the sake of the story. With a made-up setting, you have total flexibility to shape your characters’ environment to match the needs of the plot…so long as it’s believable.
What’s the best way to create a believable setting? Model it after a real one.
Whether it’s a desert, a dome beneath the ocean, or a spaceship orbiting Mars, if you can find some real-world examples, you’ll have a huge head start on making sure you’ve considered the needed details for believability.
For example…how hot does it really get in the desert? What does the sun feel like at midday on your head? Or the sand against your skin when the wind blows? How do wind and rain shape the landscape? What kinds of plants and animals live there? Where do they find food and water? What does the sky look like at night? How do you avoid getting lost?
You might be able to visit a desert, but what about your scifi set on a spaceship? Heading to the International Space Station might not be an option, but can you visit an aerospace museum with a mock shuttle? Or even an airplane. What do the engines sound like? What does the recirculated air smell like? How hard is it to navigate through the multiple small compartments? How do you get air, food, and water? Between your imagination and some research, you can extrapolate quite a bit of details that will make your setting come alive to readers.
Believability is in the details – sight, sound, smell, taste, feel. Use all five senses to place your reader into your setting. And then, take your setting a step further by thinking about how this environment affects the people who live in it. What obstacles do they face? What resources do they have in abundance? How do these details shape and influence their lives? If you can find ways to make your setting an integral part of your story, it’ll help make your book come alive.
How can you glean these details about your setting? Internet research can go a long way, between Google Maps, travel blogs, and Trip Advisor. But my favorite way, of course, is to travel. I keep mental notes (and take tons of pictures) of all the places I visit, because I never know when I’ll need those details for a story I’m writing.
Since my family is usually on a tight vacation budget (six people makes an expensive traveling party!), we prefer to take road trips and camp. This past summer that mode of traveling turned out to be the best bet anyway, with all the COVID-19 restrictions. After the spring lockdown, we needed to escape, so we loaded up the minivan and headed west.
Seventeen days, seven national parks, and more than forty miles of hiking (most of them with a two-year-old on my back). It was exhausting, gorgeous, what-were-we-thinking-crazy, and gloriously unforgettable.
Now, if you happen to be thinking this blog post is just a thinly veiled excuse to share vacation pictures, you would be 100% correct. 😉 So let’s visit some national parks!
Rocky Mountain National Park
RMNP is one of the most-visited national parks for a reason. It’s easily accessible from the big cities down the mountainside to the east, and it offers tons of great hiking and scenic vistas. Learn more at the park website here. Also, I’m sad to share that much of the park and surrounding areas are still burning in the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, so please keep this part of Colorado in your thoughts and prayers.
Arches National Park
Our initial plan was to head northwest after RMNP up to the Tetons, but a dreary weather forecast made us change our itinerary. One hundred percent chance of rain plus highs in the 50s just doesn’t sound fun when you’re tent camping. So we headed farther west into the Utah desert to visit two new-to-me parks.
Arches was amazing, both for the landscape unlike anything I’d seen and the hikes. Don’t forget a LOT of water, though. We were blessed with some lower temps (high 80s instead of 90s), but still did most of our hiking in the morning or early evening. Afternoons were for the pool.
Side note: Someday I will write a scene in which sand pelts the MC in the face. Our first night was incredibly windy, to the point that fine particles of sand literally blew through the tent screens and woke me up hitting my face. It took a solid week before all the sand was out of our tent.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands has two entrances, once about forty-five minutes from Arches and the other about two hours south. Interestingly, you can’t drive through the park to get between entrances–you have to go the long way around outside. The reason for this arrangement became obvious once we were inside, touring the breathtaking landscape. Huge canyons make a trip across the park pretty much impossible unless you have a four-wheel drive and a whole host of desert survival skills.
Grand Teton National Park
We had intended on going back home after our detour in Utah, but cancellations of some other plans due to COVID opened up more time. Have tent, will travel. *shrugs* So, with a gorgeous weather forecast up in Wyoming, we headed north to Grand Teton National Park.
I could fill an entire blog post with raptures over how much I love this park (don’t worry, I won’t). One could spend hours doing nothing but literally staring at the mountains. It’s like walking into a postcard. We were there over 4th of July weekend, so it was more crowded than usual, but once the crowds thinned the hiking and camping were as glorious as ever.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is kind of a must-see, especially if you’re already in the Tetons. The two parks are neighbors, and it only takes about an hour to get from the Jackson Lake area up to the southern Yellowstone entrance. The park is huge, with plenty of amazing geological features and boardwalks to see steam vents, geysers, and bubbling mud pots.
On the downside, it’s typically crowded, especially at the most popular attractions like Old Faithful. This year, with the pandemic, we didn’t want to hang around too long, so we dashed up to Yellowstone for a quick day trip. There’s way more to see than we could possibly visit in a day, so we had to be very selective about our stops. If you want to fully enjoy this park, be sure to plan on several days to a week!
Devils Tower National Monument
If you’ve ever seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (possibly the world’s most boring alien movie), then you’ll recognize Devils Tower right away. In fact, they show that movie every night at the KOA campground located next to the monument’s entrance.
Although it feels like it’s out in the middle of nowhere, Devils Tower is only a couple of hours from the Black Hills of South Dakota, and about four from the Badlands. It makes a nice stop between the Tetons and the Black Hills, and even part of a day is enough time to take the short 1.5 mile hike around the base of the tower. If you look closely at the pictures, you’ll see it’s a popular destination for rock climbers too.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Just a couple of hours southeast of Devils Tower lie the Black Hills of South Dakota, a welcome expanse of lush greenery after the dry plains of central Wyoming. Within the rocky crags of the hills, you’ll find Mount Rushmore and its four iconic presidents carved into the rock. Admittedly, during a pandemic is the wrong time to visit, but we could hardly drive right by and not stop. It was a bit surprising how many people weren’t wearing masks, but given what happened at the Sturgis motorcycle rally a month later, I probably shouldn’t be surprised.
We hustled in and out, and a couple of hours was more than enough time to walk the path below the memorial. This time I learned something new, too–there’s a secret room called the Hall of Records carved into the cliff behind Teddy and Abe. The sculptor had plans to store American documents like a copy of the Constitution up there, but the room was never completed. It can only be accessed from a narrow rift behind the presidents. Who knew?
If we’d had more time (and let’s be realistic, energy) we would’ve made a final stop at Badlands National Park. It’s another sublimely scenic landscape with beautiful vistas, fossil beds, and hiking unlike anywhere else.
I’m still missing two states–Arizona and New Mexico–and I have high hopes of making it deeper into the southwest sometime soon. I’d love to explore more of Utah’s many national parks too. But, those parks will have to wait for another summer!
At least I have a fresh collection of memories and experiences for inspiration next time I need outdoor setting ideas. How about you? Do you visit places you want to write about? And do you prefer real or made-up settings?
2 thoughts on “The Traveling Writer – Tips for Crafting Believable Settings”
Sounds like an amazing vacation. Love all those parks and have visited them all. GTNP is my favorite, and the Jackson Hole valley is the setting for my first book and two more to come. I love WY! Sometimes I make up towns, but I’m using real landmarks and natural areas for these books.
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Jackson Hole would make a wonderful setting! ❤