Four Ways to Create a Vivid World in Storytelling by Amanda Cassidy | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description
Amanda Cassidy

Amanda Cassidy

Location is a huge factor when it comes to creating atmosphere and characters, writes crime author, Amanda Cassidy

I came up with the idea for my debut novel Breaking while sitting on the beach in Spain watching my children playing in the waves. From my perch on a bar stool with a notebook, I imagined the horror of how it might play out if something happened to one of them on my watch. The story of missing eight-year-old Alanna Fitzpatrick and her strangely composed mother, Mirren began.  The setting was absolutely key for what I wanted to achieve in the story. I needed a beach, but I also wanted the Fitzpatrick family to be far from home. It would make things harder and create more tension if they were abroad when the worst possible thing happened – their daughter went missing on holidays.

But I also wanted the family to speak the same language as the police, who would be investigating the case, so I transplanted the story to the US. The destination, in this case, Florida often represents a type of paradise, especially for the Irish (or me, growing up at least). As I wrote through the novel, I realised the soft white sandy beaches and turquoise setting of the beach was in delicious contrast to the craggy Connemara coast where the Fitzpatrick’s lived.

The setting of every story can evolve like this. But there are a few things to keep in mind when you decide to metaphorically pin your flag to the sand.

  1. The devil is in the detail

This might sound obvious, but if you have played things right, your readers will be hanging onto your every word. Not only do you have to get the location descriptions right if it’s an actual place, but this also feeds into your characterisation. (Actually, it feeds into the entire novel, but let’s stick with the characters for now) My lead detective, Antonio Rolle is a Miami cop, sent to Kite Island to try to find out exactly why little Alannah disappeared without trace. He refers to things like a ‘car trunk’ or money as ‘bucks’ while Mirren, the Irish mother of the young girl, stays true to her original destination. In her dialogue, she talks about the ‘boot of the car’. People always pick up on these small differences, so wherever you choose to set your novel, make sure you ‘know the lingo,’ as my late father would have said.

  1. It doesn’t have to really exist

Currolough is the setting for my second novel The Returned.  Detective Ally Fields returns to her hometown to investigate a house fire and ends up unearthing all sorts of demons. This fictional town is a mosh-up of some of my summer holidays spent in Dingle, Co. Kerry, Clifden, Co.Galway and Cobh, in Cork. The thrill of world-building for me is making up every last detail and the greatest part of this strategy that you can’t be wrong! I had so much fun conjuring up this extremely touristy town with whale-watching tours and fish and chip shops with picnic benches outside. I even imagined a bronze statue at the centre of the town that probably lived at the back of my imagination somewhere for many years.

Returned 2The words in a story paint a picture, but the fun you can have deciding where a roundabout goes or how long it takes to walk to the fictional bus station, sparks joy too! The isolation of this particular town is another reason why I decided to dedicate my storyline here. There are lots of references to the bruise-coloured hills, and the clouds shadows being reflected on the lake where Ally grew up to (hopefully) add an injection of menace and pace.

  1. Use setting as character

What new writers often don’t realise is that your setting, when crafted with passion and attention to detail, informs the rest of your novel. Think about it. In real life, the places we grew up surrounded by or the cultures we are exposed to has a huge impact on the choices we make. It’s no different in fiction.

Whether you’re looking at a short story setting or the setting of a novel, the characters who populate your writing will be largely formed and informed by setting—the influences and mechanics of their everyday world. I decided to set my third novel, The Perfect Place, in the South of France. The destination meant something to me, I’d spent time going to school there when I was just sixteen and I’d worked in France on and off for years afterwards. What if my character, in this case, influencer Elle Littlewood, bought a French Chateau and charted her renovations across her social media channels. What if the previous owner of the chateau remained living there because of the nature of the deal she’d struck. In this case, the creaky old chateau becomes more than just a setting, it’s walls almost seem to breathe as Elle desperately tries to paper over the cracks of the walls (and her own crumbling life). Again, this was a lot of fun to write but it really invites the reader to get a sense of atmosphere from a place.

  1. Have a grá for the spot you choose

You are going to be spending an awful lot of time in the place you set your novel. At least a year, for some people, longer, so you might as well enjoy popping your head into the setting of your choice. I’m watching the latest True Detective series with Jodie Foster which is set in Alaska where even the day time is night-time during its ‘polar night’ and I have to admit, I’m finding it quite claustrophobic. Of course, the plot sits so well against that backdrop but writing a novel in the complete dark, with snowstorms swirling constantly might not be for everyone. I’m hoping to set my next book in the Maldives. I look forward to writing about palm trees and snorkelling trips. With murder of course. I better also do a recce!

(c) Amanda Cassidy

About The Returned by Amanda Cassidy:

The ReturnedFrom the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger shortlisted author
‘A dark, haunting tale with an emotional gut punch that stays with you long after the final page. Amanda Cassidy is an unflinching storyteller.’ Lisa Jewell, author of The Family Upstairs

When she re-lives this night, over and over, Nancy will wonder if she’d just gone upstairs a few minutes earlier, what might have been…
A devastating fire.

A grieving mother.

A picture-perfect village full of dark secrets.

And now, a son who has seemingly come back from the dead.

A detective called back to her hometown, back to the memories she thought she’d left behind…

An electrifying novel from a compelling new voice in Irish crime fiction, perfect for fans of Liz Nugent and Claire Mackintosh.

The Returned (Canelo) is out in paperback and available to buy in shops from today. You can follow Amanda on her social media @AmandaCassidyWrites

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Amanda Cassidy is a freelance journalist, commissioning editor, former Sky News reporter and author. She has been shortlisted for the Irish Journalist of the Year Awards, the Headline Media writing awards and more recently the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger for her debut, Breaking. Amanda can be found @amandacasssidy on Twitter.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books