Author: Helen Cox

Helen Cox is a UK author. She made her on-screen debut in The Krankies in 1990. Given the choice, her Mastermind topic would be Grease 2 and when someone asks her if she is a god she says 'yes.' Oh, you want to know about her books? Best click some of the links below.

27 Questions to Ask About Your Setting

diner nyc credit @helenography

In the interests of uncloaking the airy-fairy business of novel-writing, I’ll be straight with you.

When I produced the first draft of my debut novel (Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner to be published later this year through Avon Books UK) I didn’t get the setting thing quite right. Admitting this publicly is pretty daunting. I’d much rather you thought of me as some kind of naturally-gifted genius for whom the correct words flow from the pen with minimal effort.

But, who am I kidding?

Writing my first novel was hard graft, and as it was my first time there were aspects aplenty I didn’t know how to work to my advantage. One such element was setting.  My story takes place in Manhattan (because I’m in love with the place) but actually the season I’d chosen (Spring) and the year (2015) weren’t a fit for those characters and their story. I felt it, and my proof readers did too. After several (best not to count how many) drafts, I rewrote it to reflect life in August of 1990. It was an unusually hot summer even for New York and, probably by no coincidence, the city murder-rate peaked that year.

These two factors alone added depth to my narrative. My protagonist, a diner waitress called Esther, now struggles with the merciless, mid-summer heat alonside the many secrets she’s hiding. Moreover, that hard fact about the murder-rate, among other things, echoes the dangers faced by Esther and her unlikely suitor: an actor called Jack. Both of whom are forced to confront their dark relationship histories.

Based on my experiences of writing my first novel, I’ve come up with 27 questions (because, er, a round number would have felt too cliche?) it’s useful to consider when creating the backdrop to a story. It’s by no means an exhaustive list but it might prove useful for those hoping to enrich that specific element of their story-telling. If you can think of any other questions, as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Some part of me clearly misses the worksheet-making aspect of being an English teacher so for those who’d prefer a version they can easily print, do click here. Otherwise, you can read the list below.



(If you’re writing a fantasy story this part will involve delving into the geography of your world).

  1. Which country is your story set in and why?
  2. Which town is your story set in and why?
  3. Which street is your story set in and (yep, you guessed it) why?
  4. What kind of building or space will the bulk of your story take place in?
  5. What room / place in the building / space does your protagonist feel most at home in?
  6. Which rooms / spaces will you select for the key moments in your novel and why?
  7. How could key rooms / spaces reflect the psyche of your character e.g. the basement could symbolise something buried / suppressed particularly fear.
  8. How does the place reflect the themes and tone of your story?
  9. How will your protagonist’s reaction to this environment differ to the reaction of other characters?


(If you’re writing a fantasy story this part will involve delving into the history of your world).

  1. What decade is your novel set?
  2. What issues were affecting people like your protagonist at that time?
  3. What happened a decade earlier that you could draw on?
  4. What will happen a decade later (for contemporary novels this is of course an unknown, but perhaps you could speculate)?
  5. What year is your novel set?
  6. Why have chosen this year?
  7. What happened in that place at that time that could reflect the themes / tone of your novel?
  8. What happened in that place at that time that reflects the problems or experiences of your protagonist?
  9. Is there a big historical moment happening at the time your novel is set? If so, what does your protagonist think/feel about it?
  10. What time of day will your novel open, how is that significant?
  11. How could you use times of day e.g. dusk, midnight, dawn, 9-5 to reflect the ideas you want to convey to your reader?
  12. How might finishing a chapter at a particular time of day build intrigue for the next chapter?


  1. What season is your novel set?
  2. What was the weather like in that particular season that year?
  3. Is the weather in keeping with or in conflict with the thoughts and feelings of your protagonist?
  4. How can you use the weather to reflect the themes / tone of your story?
  5. How will the protagonist and characters physically react to the weather?
  6. Thinking about all of the questions you’ve considered, what are the difficulties facing your character just by living in this time, place and season. This might be influenced by their age, gender, race, species, financial situation, marital status and job title to name but a few factors.



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This entry was posted on February 16, 2016 by in Author Blog and tagged , , , , , .
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