The setting of a story is so much more than just where the story takes place. If done well, setting can help create the mood and tone of the story and can even act as a character itself. Setting is not just the physical space in which the story takes place, but the time period and culture. And as Cheryl St.John explained in Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, when characters react to their setting, we can learn about both it and the characters themselves in how the interpret what they see.
As I lean towards science fiction and dystopian stories, I’ve always had a particular interest in setting as world building is so important in those stories. I love it when a book can take me to a different place and make it feel real.
Somewhere Only We Know is a contemporary young adult novel, so there were no different worlds or societies to explore. It was just a simple small town, and, though I didn’t say where in the book, I always imagined it to be in northwest Ohio as I lived there for many years. A lot of readers are familiar with this kind of simple small town. However, setting is just as important in this book as it is in any science fiction tale.
There are only three main settings in Somewhere Only We Know: Frankie and Susan’s house, Frankie’s school, and the clearing in the forest. Each of these settings are extremely important in creating the tone of the story.
Frankie and Susan’s house is a simple two-story with an attic. The downstairs is plain, with the living room to the right of the front door and the eating area and kitchen to the left. The garage connects through the kitchen. The stairs are in the middle, which leads to the two bedrooms upstairs—Frankie and Susan’s on the right and their father’s on the left—with a bathroom in the hallway and stairs leading to the attic. The attic has a wood floor and low ceilings, and it is the only part of the house that is impeccably organized, thanks to their deceased mother. Frankie and Susan’s room is particularly messy and disorganized, which reflects the disorder in their lives.
All of the scenes including violence take place in the house, which makes it the most depressing of the three settings. Frankie does not think of it as a safe place, and so she doesn’t feel a lot of attachment towards the house. The exception of this is the attic, as that was her mother’s space. Her mother kept the attic perfectly organized and had a rocking chair up there where she would read from her Bible and look at old pictures. Frankie can feel a connection to her mother in this space, so she goes there often and several important scenes take place there.
The school is also the site of a few important scenes. Frankie gets to sit next to her best friend Lindsey in Mrs. Miller’s homeroom and language arts class, so a lot of their interaction takes place there. The fact that it is their language arts class is important because both girls feel a deep connection towards books. The other important room in the school is the office, where Frankie has multiple interactions with Principal Berry and the counselor, Mr. Lukeman. Frankie doesn’t like the office very much. She thinks the secretary doesn’t like her and the chairs in the waiting room and the offices make Frankie uncomfortable. But at the end of the book the school becomes a place of comfort and something very important takes place there.
The clearing in the forest is by far the most important setting in the book. The clearing is peaceful and beautiful. Yet its inspiration came not from nature, but from a classroom. When I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory women’s studies class to fulfill a general education requirement, and my life was forever changed. In the acknowledgements of Somewhere Only We Know I thank the teacher of this course and every student in it for creating something very special and powerful. In that classroom we shared our stories. We overcame everything that kept us in silence, and were able to share stories of violence we had encountered. Even the teacher had a story to tell about violence in her life. And with that sharing came power. We found healing by sharing what happened to us. We put a name on it and learned that it wasn’t our fault. This is the kind of environment I tried to create in the clearing for Frankie and the other girls.
I tend to feel a greater connection to God in nature, like Frankie, which is why I chose to make this magical place a clearing in the forest. The song “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane also influenced the story and gave me my title, so that is why I chose the beautiful tree to be in the middle of it. I love that the clearing becomes a safe place for Frankie and the girls to try to share their stories, and I hope that victims of abuse reading my book are able to find a place like this of their own. Because of its power, the clearing acts as a character of its own in the story, and it draws all of the girls together.
When writing a story, setting can often seem like it’s just in the background since it is the background of the story. But when you consciously think about the setting of a story and what it can do for your story, you can make it have a significant impact.