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Setting the Scene: How Time and Place Shape Our Favorite Tales

By Vanitha Sankaran
February 13, 2024

When I sit to write a story, be it a short piece or a scene in a novel, the first thing I do is map out the setting. My setting details will often be pared down or eliminated completely in the final draft. But establishing a setting is essential so I can understand the world—place and time—that my characters inhabit.

I’ve since realized setting is also a critical factor in the books that I keep going back to and for the same reasons.

Let’s talk about place first. As someone who loves traveling, I hunger to hear about places I’ve not yet traveled to so I can learn where I need to go next. Even more than that, I want to learn more about the places I have visited so I can appreciate the details I already know and marvel at those I didn’t. What is one of my favorite places to read about? France.

I’ve been a Francophile since I was a child—no surprise then that my first book, Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages, was set in the south of France. Some of my favorite reads here include:

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo is a novel I first read in French class (and understood next to nothing of, lol). My English reading of the book had me swooning, not just over Hugo’s inimitable style and the details of Paris and the titular cathedral, but also over the medieval time.
  • The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick was my introduction to contemporary historical writers. If France was a childhood interest of mine, the Middle Ages were surely a passion, and Chadwick’s meticulous eye for detail gave me so much to soak in.

It goes without saying that it’s hard for me to decouple place from time when discussing setting. Hugo’s Paris is similar to and yet irrevocably different from the Paris of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. While I was a disinterested student of history in my childhood, I have always been one to devour mythology and folklore. I grew up on stories of ancient India, in religion and in legend; as I grew older, I expanded my horizons to the easily accessed myths of ancient Greece and Rome and to stories from Egypt, Mexico, Japan, and beyond. Collecting folklore and analyzing their story structures remains a passion today. Some favorites that I go back to?

  • The Road to Avalon by Joan Wolf is my favorite telling of King Arthur from the Dark Ages. This is a love story, but not the one you expect, and it combines some interesting historical details with a twist on the classic legend.
  • The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George is a depiction of Cleopatra that I waited a long time to find. Like Elizabeth Chadwick, George wields accuracy and historical detail like a weapon while threading in the much-needed human perspective that makes her body of work a powerhouse.

And that brings us to mood, something I consider setting-adjacent: mood. Mood is often a difficult characteristic to describe. It can relate to a book’s genre; then again, histfic can be a love story, a mystery, a crime scene, or all of the above. It can describe the author’s style, the narrator’s tone, and the character’s mindsets. It can be the theme being explored. I’ve heard mood described as the emotion the author wants to instill in her reader. Mood can greatly impact the setting—imagine the difference between a Gothic house and that same house as the setting of the “society marriage” of the year. Very different, right?

While I can’t narrow down a favorite mood in my reads, I can say that I have been reading a lot of histfic lately that uses mood most skillfully, and the book that stands out is Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. It made me feel all the feels and all the moods, from nostalgia to self-righteousness, a need for vengeance to a what-have-we-wrought horror.

What settings draw you in? Is the time or place, or possibly even the mood, that compels you to keep reading?

Vanitha Sankaran

Written by Vanitha Sankaran

Vanitha Sankaran writes historical fiction as well as young adult fantasy. Her award-winning debut historical novel WATERMARK explores the world of papermaking in the Middle Ages. She is serving her fifth term on the Board of the Historical Novel Society of North America and serves as a DEI coordinator for her local chapter of the SCBWI. Find out more at

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    I will read anything well written, and love the variety of books my Book Club has exposed me to – times, places and moods I might never have made time to read. Any place, any time as long as it is compelling.


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