Maximize a Setting

This is a repost from 2019. I’ve made a few changes. I hope you can learn something from it whether it’s the first or second time you’ve read it.

If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.

  • North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
  • Foreign CorrespondentThis movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
  • PyschoHitchcock used the Bates’s home so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.

Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to work a location to maximum effect. The movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.

Feel the Heat

Two murder mysteries maximize their settings. I recently rewatched Murder on the Orient Express from 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet. Mr. Lumet did a superb job of making the audience feel the opulence and claustrophobia of traveling on the Express. Another murder mystery movie that uses settings brilliantly is Death on the Nile from 1978. All the outside locations were filmed in Egypt, and director John Guillermin makes the most of them. Set in the 1930’s, rich, young honeymooners climb to the top of the one of the Giza pyramids, a murder is barely thwarted in the temple at Luxor, and a key character returns at the tempe of Abu Simbel. I felt the dust and heat in every scene.

Writers don’t have a camera to paint a setting but we can still get the maximum effect by examining a setting for all its potential to add conflict and tension to our stories. In my upcoming release, A Shadow on the Snow, I have a chase scene set during a snowstorm at night. What advantages does that give me? Well, I can islolate my main character Rae because it’s late and few people are out in the rural county seat because there’s been icy rain and snow for over two hours. The ice makes surfaces slippery, so that can make it difficult for Rae to get away from her pursuer. The heavily falling snow makes it hard for her to keep track of pursuer.

What’s a memorable setting from a movie or book? Or have you written about a unique setting?

What Are Your Comfort Settings?

And I don’t mean the climate control in your car or home. Everyone, even characters, need a comfortable setting to retreat to or recover in. So what are your comfortable settings? If you’re a writer, what settings do your prefer to create to give your characters comfort? Readers, what are the comfortable settings that stick in your memory.

I think part of the appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories is his apartment on Baker Street. No matter how harrowing the mystery, Holmes and Watson can return to Baker Street with its inviting hearth, cozy chairs, and eccentric decorations, like the Persian slipper that holds Holmes’s tobacco. Although all the tobacco smoke would force me to leave the apartment if I wasn’t stopping by for a literary visit.

For my YA mystery, I needed a comfortable setting for main character, Rae. She’s just discovered her father and his family, so I made the farmhouse where her dad lives with her three half-brothers and her grandmother Rae’s comfort place. I modeled sections of the house on my maternal grandparents’ home, which was my comfort setting in reality.

Your turn. What are your comfort settings?

The Urban Setting Thesaurus

Nothing beats visiting a setting in person. But if that’s not possible, grab a copy of The Urban Setting Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to City Spaces by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

This reference book lists over 100 different settings found in an urban environment. For each setting, the authors list ways to evoke all five senses, possible sources of conflict, usual inhabitants, other related settings, notes and tips, and an example of how to work the setting into a story.

I wished I could have consulted this book last winter when I realized I had to write a brief scene in a pawn shop. The only time I’d visited one was in middle school. I don’t remember why, but my dad and I entered that pawn shop in Wheeling, West Virginia. My only memories are pretty vague, except for the piece of scrimshaw I found. I needed The Urban Setting Thesaurus to get the details right, even for a short scene.

The first thirty pages consist of articles offering advice on how to get maximum effect from your settings, such as “The Setting as a Vehicle for Delivering Backstory” and “Common Setting Snags”. One article I found very informative was “Urban World Building: The Pros and Cons of Choosing a Real-Life Location.”

Even better are the appendices in the back, which include the emotional value tool and setting checklist. If you have a scene that isn’t working or won’t behave, analyze it through this checklist. The authors have provided a pdf for the setting checklist here.

What if you’re writing a story with a rural setting? Never fear. Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Puglisi have thoughtfully published The Rural Setting Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places.

For my review of another writing book on settings, click here. I’ve also reviewed another book by Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus.

What book you’ve read has an amazing urban setting?

Join Allen’s Investigators!

Do you love mysteries, Christian fiction, or YA novels? If you do, I hope you’ll join my street team, Allen’s Investigators, that will spread the word about the upcoming release of my YA Christian mystery, A Shadow on the Snow.

What do I do for my Investigators?

  • Provide memes for the cover release.
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  • Provide memes during the pre-release and post-release periods.
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  • Thank you profusely for supporting my book!

What do you do as an Investigator?

  • Display the cover on your social media sites for the cover release.
  • Post content for the cover release.
  • Display memes during the pre-release and post-release periods.
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  • Post a review on the book retail sites of your choice.

As an Investigator, you’ll also be the first to receive news about my books as well as access to exclusive rewards and giveaways.

Sign up below and put in the comments that you want to join my Investigators. Thanks in advance! See? The profuse thanks has already started!

How Can August Inspire Your Writing?

This month’s theme is setting. Today’s prompt is a setting anyone, anywhere, can use because all of us are experiencing August. How can August inspire your writing?

I’ve worked so much on my novel in the past year that I neglected my poetry skills. I decided to write a poem about August in the Buckeye State, inspired by the monthly poems John Updike wrote in A Child’s Calendar, one of my favorite books of poetry. When I think of August, heat, humidity, dusty or hazy afternoons, and the threat of school looming ever closer comes to mind.


Summer was worn out its welcome.

The beach is no longer refreshing, just sandy.

The sunshine is no longer warm, just scorching.

Even fireflies have grown bored and disappeared.

But …

At night, a chill steals through the humidity,

Bringing whispers of haunted eves, cosy hearths, and a night of utter wonder.

For more ideas on how August can inspire your writing, click here.

What does August look like where you live?

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