Setting your story by Alison Morton




If you set your story near home, then you know the plains, the streets, shops, the roads, the types of people, vehicles, and the “busyness”, dangers and fun of daily life.

f you venture overseas with your characters, you could perhaps visit the places the characters would live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky, or freeze in a biting wind.

If you reach into the past to set a historical story you need not only to research the period in meticulous detail, but also get inside the heads of the characters, imagine what they see in their everyday world, what they smell, eat and touch. And it will be quite different, fifty years ago, let alone five hundred.

Going further – inventing a country, planet or other reality as in my Roma Nova alternate history thrillers – you will need to gear up your imagination to its highest level.

We’re creative beings; we’ve imagined space adventures, high crime, medieval romances, sea voyages, in short, alternative realities, since we were children. We’ve built worlds of richness, deprivation, strange laws and customs, silks, satins and broadcloth, rural, industrial and futuristic.

And with that imagination, we’ve created our stories, the driving force of our books, but we have to be practical as well. Readers and fans will expect us to know everything from costume, social philosophy and weapons to food, transport and childcare provision. (Yes, I was asked that at the launch of my second book.)

No country – modern, historical or in the distant future – can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social and political system, food, law and order, and income. This sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. Their experience of living in a place and struggle to make sense of it is expressed through their culture. 

Some basic questions to ask yourself to bring your setting into focus

One big thing to think through apart from its history is what your book’s world looks like. If it’s a country the reader would already know, has transport developed beyond the horse and cart to steam trains, sailing ships, submarines or supersonic air travel? Is it safe to travel from one town to another? Is it a thriving or decaying urban landscape? If it’s an imaginary country, are there mountains, seas and rivers? What’s growing in the fields, does the countryside consist of plains, valleys or desert?

How do people make their living? How are they educated? What kind of industry is there? Is the government representative? Are laws authoritarian or permissive? What’s the food like? Are there markets, little shops, big chains? What does the money look like? How advanced is the technology? Is it a mechanized/industrial society? And most importantly, who holds the power?

You may like to draw a map, however crude, just to keep track of where you’re sending your characters on their adventures. If your story is set in a smaller area such as a big house or hotel, sketch out a house and garden plan with stairs, storeys and rooms so you can move your characters around without finishing up at a dead end or on the wrong floor. Ditto if your community is tight knit and your story takes place in neighbouring tower blocks or a small village.

The key is plausibility
Take a character working in law enforcement. Readers can accept cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers come from all genders, classes, races and ages and stand in different places along the personal morality ruler. But whether corrupt or clean, they must act like a recognisable form of cop. They catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a judicial system. Legal practicalities may differ from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader.

Almost every story hinges upon a set-up or a problem the writer has purposefully created. Readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the original setting the writer has introduced.  Even though my books are alternate history thrillers set in the 21st century, the Roman characters still say things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals when he finds out,’ not shoes.  And there are honey-coated biscuits (honey was big for the ancient Romans) not chocolate digestives in the police squad room.

Practical tips

  • Anchors and links to ‘normal’ e.g. a cop is always a cop
  • Juxtaposition: reinforce a setting or details of your period through a character’s eyes when she sees and reacts to something that she thinks is impossible.
  • Drip-drip: local colour or period detail is essential, but only where necessary and when relevant. Ninety per cent of your research does not belong in your narrative.
  • Names, everyday words and slang: keep it simple, so it doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story.

Characters interacting with the setting

Three key points that apply to any environment:

  • Characters have to act, think and feel like real people whatever language they speak or however they’re dressed.
  • Characters should live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes.
  • The permissions and constraints of their world should make additional trouble and conflict for them.

Setting is a crucial part of your story, but it’s only one element. It must interact intimately with character, plot and conflict. And if your lyrical description of your setting doesn’t enhance a scene or contribute actively to your story, you may have to consider cutting it out.

Happy writing!


Alison Morton bio 

Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre all over the globe.

So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.

Alison lives in France and writes Roman-themed thrillers with tough heroines.

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series

– shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award

– B.R.A.G. Medallion

– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year

PERFIDITAS, second in series

– B.R.A.G. Medallion

– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year

SUCCESSIO, third in series

– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014

– B.R.A.G. Medallion

– Editor’s choice, The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014
AURELIA, fourth in series, the first of a new cycle of three

– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2015

– Shortlisted for the 2016 HNS Indie Award

– B.R.A.G. Medallion

Fact file:

Education: BA French, German & Economics, MA History

Memberships: International Thriller Writers, Historical Novel Society, Alliance of Independent Authors, Society of Authors, Romantic Novelists’ Association
Represented by Blake Friedman Literary Agency for overseas and ancillary rights

Social media links

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site:

Facebook author page

Twitter @alison-morton


Buying link for Alison’s latest book :


AURELIA book trailer:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *