Setting is a basic building block for any kind of writing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry or drama. There are lots of definitions of setting but I like the Wikipedia version the best:
The setting is both the time and geographic location within a narrative or within a work of fiction. [It] helps initiate the main backdrop and mood for a story. Setting has been referred to as story world  or milieu to include a context (especially society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story. Elements of setting may include culture, historical period, geography, and hour. Along with the plot, character, theme, and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.
But sometimes setting can be even more than that. It can rise to the level of a character, the star, the reason why this work was written. There are whole schools of poets, musicians and painters enamored with the physical world. We think, then, about shimmering water lilies or an ode to an asphodel. But not all writing about place is pretty.
Lease Hound by Rick Bass is a novella about drilling for oil in the salt pans of the Black Warrior Basin in Alabama. The main character is the eponymous lease hound. His task is to acquire leaseholds from the sharecroppers trying to eke out an existence from the unforgiving land.
Our lease hound is a stranger to this strange land. He comes from Utah and once thought of a career in the church. But he soon learned that all the jobs were in oil. He arrives in Alabama and sees a biblical landscape.
Underground, the Black Warrior was the bowl of an old ocean, but up above it was red-clay woodland, stippled with hilltop farms where clodhoppers scratched at fields of stunted corn. Gaunt cattle stood clay-gripped to their hocks in ruts sun-hardened as if to bronze. When it rained it did so for days at a time, transforming the clay hills into slaughterous sheets of red, as though they were the flayed carcasses of animals.
Velma Carter lives in the family home, once a magnificent structure, now as decrepit as Velma herself. She’s sworn never to lease her land but Velma is senile. As the lease hound struggles with his conscience, he wonders what Brother Janssen would have said:
He might have shared with her one of his favorite beliefs: that for every mysterious curve of the land, there is a similar shape in the human heart; and because of this, no one ever needed to feel alone.
the big city
Cities exert a special hold on the imagination. A writer can draw characters as larger than life and tie their fates to the vicissitudes of their setting. Paris, New York, Los Angeles: a place of liberation or torment.
Shanghai is a place that is beyond easy definition, outside of anyone’s grasp. It is simultaneously local and foreign, poor and rich, strange and familiar, shiny and dirty, nostalgic and futuristic. One could say that of an place, of course, any modern city.
And so we arrive in New York City, more particularly the borough of Queens and, to be very exact:
Jamaica Avenue, the street below the elevated J-train tracks whose ties, in sunlight, laddered the pavement with alternating gold and black bands, we stopped in the usual places: the hardware store; Heinz’s delicatessen; the butcher’s shop; Dilbert’s (the dim grocery store with its grimy tile floor); or Lewis’s, owned by the madman Al Lewis. All the stores on Jamaica Avenue were one story high. Above them were two stories of small apartments. The top-floor apartments stood so close to the train tracks that during the summer kids standing between the stopped cars could spit out pearl-sized gobs of phlegm and watch them sail through one of the open windows.
In The Leash by Tom Grimes, we meet Mr. Hanlon and his beagle, Charlie. They brave the streets of New York: the switchblade-carrying teenagers, the 90 degree heat, the traffic. We see New York as only a New Yorker can.
a country setting
The Dig by Cynan Jones was first published as a short story in Granta #119, the Britain issue. Both the title and the short story refer to the blood sport of badger-baiting. The setting here is grim: the dog kennels, the badger lairs and the pit.
The novella version of The Dig adds the parallel story line of Daniel. It’s lambing season and he’s alone. He must push through exhaustion and grief to help the ewes give birth and keep their lambs warm. Daniel’s setting seems pastoral. We see the sheep shed, the lamb box, the field where a horse comes to graze for the day. But in all that life, there is also death.
He had been in a way reluctant to go to the shed for fear of facing some catastrophe being on the other shift would have averted. A lamb strangled in its own cord; a young ewe – her pelvis too narrow – prone and sloughing blood through inside tears, her lamb drowned in its own bag, the strange hernia of bag split and bulbing from the uterus, the dead lamb’s head magnified in the fluid of its failed birth. All these things he had readied himself for as he put on his boots, went to the shed. But all was well. There was a new tiny lamb just shakily on its feet and still greasy where its mother had licked it clean.
Town and country, east or west, setting tells the reader where we are and sometimes also where we’re headed, just like a map should do. Territory is an online journal dedicated to territories and maps. But before you suppose that this is an association of amateur cartographers, think again:
The map […] reduces the complexity of the world to a manageable space, and suggests distant lands are not so distant. In this miniaturized space, it’s easy to envision an entire world. Perhaps too easy—maps often destroy through their creation. They are a barbaric art, or an art used for politics and propaganda.
They say history is written by the victors. Maybe they’re the ones who draw the maps, too. Those kinds of maps show battle lines and territory won and places to honor their dead. My map of Shanghai doesn’t look like that. I’ve laid the past onto the street grid of the present. It’s a guide that serves only to access memory.
But what do we choose to recall or record and with what intent? In Clearly Marked Ghosts by Francisco Cantú, we find many maps. One to apprehend migrants illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the US. Another warns new migrants away. The last one is to locate the dead. These maps will change over time as more of the wall goes up and, with it, the body count.
A trail is a map written on the face of the land. Yet a trail can change when it lives by the sea.
Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we found a curved path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and of currents.
This is the Broomway, Britain’s deadliest footpath. Walkers once used stone and string to navigate its route. At low tide, the water cedes to sandflats. In Silt (also published in Granta #119), Robert Macfarlane calls this place a mirror-world.
Sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand and the air duplicated the textures of both. Hinged cuckoo calls; razor shells and cockleshells; our own reflections; a profusion of suns; the glide of transparent over solid.
In February 2004, 20 odd Chinese came to Morecambe Bay looking for cockles. Then the tide came in and all perished. Isaac Julien wove that incident into his video installation Ten Thousand Waves, his exploration of
the movement of people across countries and continents and […] unfinished journeys.
The Morecambe Bay path and the Broomway are official offshore trails. Yet, Macfarlane notes:
They are rights of way and as such are inscribed on maps and in law, but they are also swept clean of the trace of passage twice daily by the rides. What do you call a path that is no path?
Now that’s a setting worth writing about.