The Power of Setting

Gillette Castle 16 - View of Castle from path

A view of Gillette castle from the path.

I’ve just finished stage managing a production of Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays at Theatreworks New Milford in Connecticut. This murder mystery is set in Gillette Castle, which was the real-life home of William Gillette (who brought Sherlock Holmes to the stage) in nearby East Haddam.

It’s open to the public, so some of the cast and crew field tripped it. Our experience walking through the rooms brought a new level of realism to our performance; at the castle, we could see where the scenes take place; on the set, we could imagine the true backdrop as we worked.

Writers want to do the same for readers — we want to bring the world alive for them; make it three-dimensional and real. While it’s often noted the secret to success in this area is the use of the five senses, I find it’s more specific than that. Here are the five keys to creating a vivid setting (in no particular order):

Gillette Castle 43

Door to the greenhouse – a fine example of something to describe which is location-specific. You’re not going to find one of these just anywhere!

Location-Specific Visual

Describe the most interesting visual facet of the environment — usually this is an element specific to that location and that location alone. In Gillette’s Castle, I could focus on the stones, the intricate door locks/handles — that’s a place that has, quite literally, an boundless selection. Flora is great, too — what types of flowers/trees are exclusive to that environment? Are the lawns manicured or is everything covered with a thorny thicket? In what condition are the roads? What types of houses are about? What kinds of animals live in the woods or alleys? The possibilities are endless.

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All of the different plants in this room in Gillette’s time would create an interesting smell in this area of the castle. (On another note, SO JEALOUS OF THIS DESERT PALM! It’s old — they take a long time to get this big. I have two in my house that are doing well, but they’re small. It’ll be ages before they’re this size).


So few writers remember to use smell, and yet it’s the most powerful of the senses — researchers have linked it to the strongest trigger for memories and emotions (layman’s explanation of that here). Every place has its own smell — a person’s home, a gas station, deep woods, a mildewed basement. The best way to describe specific smells with which the reader may not be familiar is to combine two familiar ones — for example, “rotten bananas and oatmeal,” “raw onions and gasoline.” Taking that one step further, we’ve all smelled things that are so pungent we can taste them as well. What does the air taste like to your character?

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What would touching this banister feel like under the hand? The stairs leading up to the entrance to the grand hall.


Yes, I totally MADE UP THIS WORD (there simply wasn’t one to express what I wanted). This is another one that’s overlooked. Instead of using blanket words like cold or hot, ask how yourself how the character’s body feels. Are the sharp chunks of gravel causing dull aches through the bottoms of his thin sandals? Does the tree bark feel like something else familiar to him? Is there a smell which bothers him, making him nauseous or dizzy?

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How would a human voice sound at the base of this stairwell as opposed to in a smaller room in the house? Would the person’s voice take on a different quality when he enters this room? This stairwell ascends to Gillette’s tower, which is closed to the public, probably for insurance reasons (or maybe it’s not in good shape).


Just as in real life, sound plays a vital role in establishing a specific setting. Down by the ocean, you might hear one set of sounds (waves, laughing children, seagulls); in the mountains, you hear another (mourning doves, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the running water of streams). Using location-specific sounds can give your setting a three-dimensional feel.

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How would this light color the walls around it? How different would it look if it were in a room with windows as to opposed to a room without? How would the light change in a large room as opposed to a closet?


How the light falls in a specific environment adds to atmosphere. What color is the sunlight (dusky, pale, golden) — if there’s any at all? What color is the sky (ashen, cerulean, violet)? Are there certain corners of a room that are lit at certain times of day? What types of lamps are lit and how do they color the room?

An immersive setting leaves the reader with a strong impression. For fun, here are photos of our recent trip to the castle — what are some of its unique visual features? How do you think the place would smell? How would the massive wooden staircase feel under your feet? What are some of the sounds you can imagine? How would you describe the winter light?

The castle is closed for the season now, but will reopen on Memorial Day. You can learn more about it here.

About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies; her traditionally published books include a short story collection, THE SHADOWS BEHIND. She was the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She serves as co-host of the DARK DISCUSSIONS podcast, as founding editor of the dark literary journal 34 ORCHARD, and is a member of both the New England Horror Writers and the Horror Writers Association. Follow her adventures at

Posted on January 15, 2015, in The Writing Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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