The best way to write a superb setting of your own is to first understand how it's being used in other stories. Setting is important because it is the backdrop for everything else. It establishes the tone, mood, and details for each individual literary piece. By using these 4 strategies for analyzing settings in other books we can piece together what makes them effective and then use those techniques to strengthen our own writing.
First pick a couple books in a given genre. I'm personally fond of YA, so I'll be analyzing Harry Potter, and Holes. You can choose whichever genre you like, including poetry. As long as there's a story taking place, I assure you, it has a setting.
Now that we've chosen our examples, how do we analyze setting? The answer is simple. We're going to identify the primary setting, evaluate the mood, assess the atmosphere, and examine the details. After we learn what falls under each of these categories, we'll break down the individual examples for each so that we get a full understanding of how things tie together.
Identifying the primary place
Begin by analyzing your chosen examples. Locate all of the places within each story. Take note of where the main action occurs. Write down the time period it happens in, whether or not the setting is real or fictional, and what time of day it is. There is usually one setting that stands out above the others as the main background for the most important scenes/action events. This is your primary setting. From here we will analyze the key pieces within that scenery.
Evaluate the mood
Once you've figured out the primary setting, look at it a little deeper. Write down the feelings that come to mind when you read. What details emphasize the way the characters are feeling? This may take you a few moments to sort out, as it could be more subtle, but in doing so you will begin to understand and interpret the message of the story.
For example, if the characters find themselves in a post-apocalyptic scenery, chances are there are ruined buildings within a dreary, drab landscape that holds little resources. There may be glaring heat, and the people who live there wear clothing that is old and falling apart. Their countenances shine with savage hunger behind the thick coat of dust on their brows. All of these details are crafted to re-enforce the miserable, starving, and scrappy main character who is losing hope along with the remainder of his society.
Determine the atmosphere
Different from mood, the atmosphere refers to the objects within the setting that reinforce the underlying conflicts of the story. Consider the geographical location and the date, and what inferences you can draw from it. What do they add to overall atmosphere of the story? Writers can sew further background into their narrative by choosing a particular time period and setting.
A wonderful example comes from The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Here he sets the stage by placing the sinister events that occur within the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692–93. Simply by choosing this time period and setting, Miller let's us know immediately that they are associated with the Salem witch trials that took place during this era. By giving his characters the values of Puritans, he places emphasis on the strict, religious, and superstitious society that is quick to judge and persecute others. By placing it in in newly settled America, we see that the members of this society are isolated, and have little knowledge beyond that given by Reverend Hale, who ultimately stokes the fires towards violence and hysteria. This setting sets the stage for the tragic events to come.
Consider the details
Finally, look through all of the elements within the setting and see how they contribute to the overall picture. Pay attention to all the little details such as the weather, the natural surroundings, the room or dwelling in which they are standing, and anything else that is included in the description. All of these details are intentional. They convey the emotional condition of the main character, and provide insight into their state of mind. In Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, the sea is described as being "kind" and "beautiful", yet "she can be so cruel". This shows the love-hate relationship the old man has for both the sea and for fishing. It is also a testimony to his overall state of mind, as he feels conflicted because of the unpredictable nature of the challenges he faces.
Now that we've established what we're looking for, let's break down our examples:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Starting with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling, I've pulled out the excerpt above from the beginning of the first chapter. Below is the break-down of the setting according to the 4 strategies:
Primary Place: From the excerpt we can see that there are two primary settings from the series: the muggle world (represented by the Dursley's house) and the wizarding world (represented by Hogwarts). These two settings share equal importance because they provide a vivid contrast when compared to each other. The mood of the series is established by this contrast.
Mood: The Dursley's house reminds me of the color gray. It is boring, mundane, ordinary, and bleak. There's nothing special about it or its inhabitants. The Dursley's are miserable, unattractive people living lives of complacency. Harry doesn't fit in here because he is extraordinary. He needed a world that would embrace that, and thus Hogwarts was born. This shadowy, mysterious world of magic and intrigue is exciting and much more interesting. This is appealing to Harry- and to us- because we all crave adventure and a break from our normal routine.
Atmosphere: The air of novelty and strangeness is reinforced by the setting. Being in England, the customs are different and the accents are dreamy. The time frame of being in the past further removes it from the reality we experience today, which adds to this idea of surrealism.
Details: Looking at the first chapter, Rowling uses key words to emphasize the Dursley's bleak "muggle" existence. The first thing she says is that it is a "dull, grey Tuesday". This is perfect because it already tells us that things are dreary and unimportant. There's nothing special about an overcast and cloudy day, not to mention that everyone equates these types of days with feeling "bleh". She continues on to point out that Mr. Dursley's tie is "boring", and that Mrs. Dursley is a "gossip". Both negative traits to add to the already unlikable day. On top of it all we know that Dudley, the infant, is screaming. Overall, it doesn't sound like anyplace we would like to spend our time, and yet it is all too familiar for many of us who live in suburbia.
Our next example is Holes by Louis Sachar. A story about a young boy named Stanley who is falsely accused of stealing a pair of famous sneakers, he finds himself serving his sentence at the juvenile labor camp known as Camp Green Lake. There he discovers a family curse and a tragic love story that leads to great wealth and prosperity for both his family and his new friend, Zero. Below are the details:
Primary Place: The entire story takes place at Camp Green Lake. This juvenile facility is in the middle of the desert, though it was originally named after the lake that it used to be known for. The dry sand and unbearable heat makes life miserable for the teenagers unfortunate enough to be sentenced to their punishment there. Even the flashbacks to the wild west and the story of Kissing Kate Barlow takes place there, adding to the myth of the treasure and the magic of the curse.
Mood: Dry and isolated, the landscape reflects Stanley's feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and abandonment. This is compounded by the abuse he suffers at the hands of the Warden and her cronies, the bullying from the others boys, the lack of basic necessities such as shower water, and the back-breaking labor of digging holes. On the flip side, it emphasizes the emotional suffering that Kissing Kate goes through after Sam's murder. As the lake dries up, so does her love, and her rage is as brutal as the scorching desert sands.
Atmosphere: The switch between the past and present is an effective method here. It gives further insight to the curse, the origin of the treasure, and how that ties in with Stanley and Zero's destiny. The parallel between the wild west and the criminal behavior of the camp's leaders shows that Camp Green Lake never lost the lawlessness that governed the land. This further pushes Stanley to rebel against the stakes, just like Kissing Kate did back in her day.
Details: Sachar uses the description "a dry flat wasteland" to describe the first view we have of the expanse of desert surrounding the camp. He then reinforces this by telling us that the lake no longer exists and that the town has "shriveled and dried up" with it. He's made it clear that life cannot and will not survive in this environment, and that message is extended to the harsh reality of digging holes that the boys face. He says that the "temperature hovers around ninety-five degrees" and I equate the oppressive feeling of that dry heat to the overbearing control the Warden has over the teenagers. He says "the Warden owns the shade", which goes to show how much power the Warden truly has in the situation overall. Everything about this scene portrays an oppressive and overbearing environment which foreshadows the power struggle between Stanley and leadership throughout the story.
Regardless of the genre you've chosen to analyze, you're bound to learn what works and what doesn't. The main thing to keep in mind when crafting your setting is to be intentional. Use the creative resources you have at your disposal to enhance your overall story. Pick elements that add to the tension or overall representation of what your character stands for or is opposing. Whatever you choose, practice makes perfect. It may take you a few tries to get it right, but hey, that's what erasers are for.