Nonfiction Setting and My Comfy Chair

I’m fussy when it comes to choos­ing where to sit. The com­fy chair or the well-worn red sofa? Lights on high or nice­ly dimmed? Soft throw blan­ket? Some­times even in a restau­rant, I ask to sit at a dif­fer­ent table than the one the host choos­es because it doesn’t feel right. My hus­band rolls his eyes.

Set­ting whether in fic­tion, non­fic­tion, or my own fam­i­ly room, holds a spe­cial place in my heart. I need to expe­ri­ence the place. Its scent, light­ing, sounds, and details. Set­ting is just as much a char­ac­ter in non­fic­tion as the peo­ple or events we write about. Here are a few tips to make the most of that non­fic­tion setting.

1. Paint your set­ting with details:

Sergeant RecklessIn Sergeant Reck­less: The True Sto­ry of the Lit­tle Horse Who Became a Hero, the author Patri­cia McCormick begins the sto­ry with a prob­lem. The U.S. Marines fight­ing in Korea are worn out from haul­ing heavy ammu­ni­tion to the can­non named Reck­less up the hill. They found a small mare and set out to train her. The read­er can’t help but be smack dab in the war with the horse now named Sergeant Reckless.

One day, the marines spot­ted ene­my troops approach­ing; instant­ly, they went into bat­tle mode. Pvt. Mon­roe Col­man sad­dled up Reck­less and led her to the top of the hill. BOOM! Just as they were deliv­er­ing their load, the can­non went off. A blast of hot air sent dust and grav­el fly­ing toward the horse. Reck­less jumped straight in the air — even with six shells on her back…BOOM! The can­non roared again. She jumped, but not so high this time. BOOM! This time, Reck­less just snort­ed. By the next time the gun went off, Reck­less was busy eat­ing a hel­met lin­er she’d found in the grass.”

The scene got my heart rac­ing, as if I were right there. And after the dan­ger, my heart swelled with admi­ra­tion for both the marines and Sergeant Reckless.

Bold Women of MedicineIn my YA non­fic­tion book, Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin arrives in Ethiopia: “The fresh scent of euca­lyp­tus mixed with dust in every breath remind­ed them of Aus­tralia. Some­one was sup­posed to have met them. When no one arrived … they walked along the frag­ment­ed road car­ry­ing their lug­gage and see­ing noth­ing but green coun­try­side, loaded-down don­keys, and a few cars.” Details help to pro­vide the back­drop for this setting.

2. Use all five senses:

Smell brings to mind all kinds of places; a zoo, a cup of bleach in a laun­dro­mat. Sounds like; a ring­ing bell, chug­ging train, or the hum of a crowd­ed mar­ket add to the set­ting. Light; how it bright­ens a gloomy day. Touch: the soft warm blan­ket on a cold night, the silk­i­ness of your dog’s coat.

An American PlagueThe begin­ning of An Amer­i­can Plague by Jim Mur­phy uses the sense of smell com­bined with oth­er details to draw the read­er in. Sight and sound are famil­iar sens­es many writ­ers use. But smell is some­times even more effective.

Sat­ur­day, August 3, 1793. The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unre­lent­ing.  Dead fish and gooey veg­etable mat­ter were exposed and rot­ted, wild swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air.”

The book pulls us in imme­di­ate­ly with the weight of the air and forces the read­er to feel unease. And in the fol­low­ing pas­sage the sen­so­ry words he uses such as clat­tered, squawk­ing, and squeal­ing add to the uncertainty.

Horse drawn wag­ons clat­tered up and down the cob­ble­stone street, bring­ing in more fresh veg­eta­bles, squawk­ing chick­ens, and squeal­ing pigs. Peo­ple com­ment­ed on the stench from Ball’s wharf, but the market’s own ripe blend of odors — of roast­ing meats, strong cheeses, days-old sheep and cow guts, dried blood and horse manure — tend­ed to over­whelm all others.”

Sur­round­ing your char­ac­ters with as many sens­es as you can help to estab­lish a sol­id set­ting. When I read this, I want­ed to plug my nose and wipe sweat off my fore­head. If your non­fic­tion is his­tor­i­cal, of course you were not there. It helps to vis­it the loca­tion of the event or walk the streets of your subject.

3. Weath­er:

Miss Colfax's LightTake full advan­tage of the weath­er. A blind­ing bliz­zard sets the sto­ry. A humid day, we feel the slug­gish­ness of the char­ac­ters. Crisp fall weath­er gives us a chill, gets us ready to set­tle in for the win­ter. Aimée Bis­sonette writes about one tur­bu­lent night in her pic­ture book biog­ra­phy, Miss Colfax’s Light. 

One stormy night in 1886, when Har­ri­et was more than 60 years old, she set out for the west pier. The wind raged. Dri­ving sleet cov­ered her coat with ice. Sand from the dunes along the lake pelt­ed Harriet’s face, sting­ing her cheeks. She strug­gled with her lantern and her bucket…The bea­con tow­er swayed in the wind as Har­ri­et struck her match and lit the light. Teeth chat­ter­ing from the cold, she hur­ried back across the cat­walk. When she stepped off the cat­walk, a deaf­en­ing screech filled the air. Crash!”

Aimee high­lights weath­er details that incite dan­ger as we move through the scene with Miss Col­fax. We feel the ice on our face and the slip­per­i­ness under our feet. What will hap­pen, will she slip? This scene gives me both the chills and a shaky stomach.

Back here in Min­neso­ta, it’s get­ting cold. All the more rea­son for me to set­tle in my snug chair lamps dimmed, next to a toasty fire. Steam­ing cup of tea anyone?

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Aimee Bissonette
5 years ago

Anoth­er excel­lent piece chock full of good tips!

patricia sutton
5 years ago

I love this, Susan. Great infor­ma­tion and orga­ni­za­tion of ideas for writ­ers – young and old. I could eas­i­ly see teach­ers using this in their class­rooms. I’m inspired by you.