Figuring Out Your Setting

Hellloooooooo everyone!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently writing a YA fantasy novel (it took me a really long time to accept that it was YA, so we can all celebrate my publicly announcing it as a lovely little mid-week accomplishment), which is what got me thinking about this particular blog post. But first, a seemingly unrelated paragraph (it ties back in, promise).

If you know anything at all about me, you know that I think brains are pretty cool things. For instance, for a woman who is occasionally bad at map reading [Disclaimer: I firmly believe that repeatedly missing turn-offs while James is driving isn’t really my fault. Sometimes Google Maps has the turn off somewhere different, sometimes it’s called something different and honestly, American highways can be confusing], I’m really, really good at remembering certain places I’ve been. I have absolutely no idea why, but sometimes I like to amuse myself by thinking about my high school back in Australia and drawing a mental map of where everything sits. It was (is) a beautiful place to spend the vast majority of my teenage years (and since I’m a massive nerd, no one will be shocked to learn that I really liked school, so my memories are overwhelmingly positive). Don’t get me wrong: no doubt my sense of scale would be shot, but I like to remember that this building went here and this road curved around like this and linked this building up to the next. I don’t know why I do it, or why I enjoy it, but there you go. Another weird fact to add to your mental Filofax about me.

So, the point is that I like mental pictures (who doesn’t, right?).. But when it comes to figuring out my fantasy world? The specifics of the setting?

I’m struggling.

I’m 100 000 words into writing this novel (milestone alert! I just reached this yesterday, so I’m pretty pumped about it), and I haven’t definitely mapped out my world. Reading Terry Pratchett recently has left me both amused and very envious at his brilliant deflection of the issue entirely by proclaiming in The Colour of Magic, that Discworld is constantly changing and he wouldn’t provide a map for it. Now, whether that subsequently changed or not is less the issue here than the fact that he avoided having to clearly delineate what it all looked like. Smart man.

But back to me.

Part of me is wondering whether my personal struggle to visualise my fantasy setting is because of the schemas available in my mind (thank youuuu introductory psychology) that I use to categorise and understand the world have no way of accommodating something they’ve never experienced before. That’s one theory, but I think there’s a possibility it’s not the most likely one, because part of writing is creating things you may have had no experience with whatsoever. So that’s not a strong argument.

Take two. I think my world is just too big (or I’m trying to think too small?). It comprises six different nations, and I originally thought that maybe, you know… Each would be the size of actual countries: our countries. Think about how big Australia is and explain to me how you would, in detail, fill in every square meter of that. [If someone out there can do this, or has done so in the past, please tell me and also sign a waiver to turn your phenomenal brain into a goopy serum I can consume and also become amazing.] So I’ve put all of those concerns on the back burner a bit. I mean setting in terms of a particular event, that I can do. A room, a house (well, kind of. I always get distracted with that damn brain of mine), an underground warren of tunnels (they have some crazy stuff underground in one of these countries) I can manage, but a whole world? I’m not so sure. And now you all know my ugly secret: I am not a great world builder. Hopefully at some point in the future, that will change and I will really start to flesh all of this out into something awesome, but for now, I think I’m just going to focus on writing my novel.

After all, when I started, my only idea was to have a girl find a book in a library that transports her to another world; at 100 000 words, I think we can safely say I’ve moved past that and spawned something pretty crazy, but I also did it with pretty minimal idea of where I wanted to go. If you too are struggling to build a firm and definitive idea of your setting for your novel, take heart! I’ve survived so far without really sorting my life out: you probably can too.


I just have to keep writing and I’ll figure it out eventually. Someday, it’s going to be magnificent.

— Ana.


  1. I can’t even get my head around writing 100,000 words let alone building a world at the same time! One day when I finally have a crack at writing a novel I will check back in with my tales of misery, woe and lack of maps 🙂 Keep it at – great milestone and these things have a way of working out I reckon…

    • That’s exactly what James said! He’s like ‘100 000 words o.O’ and I’m just like ‘it’s only scary until you tell yourself just to write a 1000 every day :p.’ But I am looking forward to hearing all about these woes when your time comes!! My attitude is: one day, it’ll be resolved. Today is not that day, but one day :p

  2. I know, I hate the idea so much. But then stuff starts to get important. Like how far someone can walk, ride, broomstick, in a day and suddenly I’m thinking about scale. Blegh.
    Terry Pratchett was a genius.

    • EXACTLY! My MC had to go traipsing around the place and I was like… Ummm, where is she going? How long will it take her to get there? What the hell am I doing? 🙂 Exactly. Damn you Terry Pratchett!

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