How do writers choose the settings for their stories

  • Books
  • Sunday, 15 May 2016

One of the most exciting things about reading is that it can take you to new, exciting places. By just flipping through the pages of books, a reader can be taken to far, exotic destinations, without ever having to leave the comfort of their rooms. Books are a lot cheaper than a passport renewal and a plane ticket!

Armchair travellers are in for a treat with this year’s The Star-Popular Readers’ Choice Awards (RCA). Many titles in the fiction category are set in exotic, fascinating locations: including Malaysia’s Taman Negara with its verdant and mysterious jungles; Ohio, the midwestern state with its old-fashioned American charm, or the imposing walls of the Forbidden City of ancient China. There is a lot in these titles to give local book-lovers inspiration for their next vacation.

We sat down with some of the RCA nominees, who told us a little bit about the locations of their novels, and the challenges of establishing a setting in their writing.

Aishah Madadiy
Aishah Madadiy

str2_ttrcaplaces_terencetoh_1_bitsofheavenAishah Madadiy, author of Bits Of Heaven

Where is your novel set, and why did you decide to set it there?

My novel is mainly set in Ohio, in the United States. Since my fiction was going to tackle issues like freedom of speech, problems in media reports, hasty generalisations against Muslims or so-called Islamophobia, I was simply convinced that the States would become the perfect setting for the novel, though there’s no definite reason as to why I chose Ohio. One day while browsing the Web, I came across several places in Ohio that looked interesting, especially Ohio University, where my main character furthers his doctoral degree in journalism.

Have you visited this place before?

No. It’s quite strange to say this, I know. How can it even be possible to write about a place I haven’t been to? Well, in this case, it always comes down to illimitable imagination, accompanied by meticulous research undertaken along the writing process. Writing, as we know, is a mental journey. That’s the best part – I can freely travel across the globe without having to really leave my ergonomic chair and the computer. Having mentally travelled to Ohio, all I can say is, it’s the place one must go to for a taste of authentic America; from beaches to cities, to isolated bookshops in German Village, Columbus. I like old-fashioned, picturesque environs, and Ohio suits the idea best.

As a writer, what sort of details are important to you when you write about a place?

I think, the sui generis nature of a place and one’s own emotions connected with it. Even though writing is a mental journey most of the time, it involves a similar process to when we travel physically. Be it good or bad, we would always be in awe of the place, where we would discern the qualities of the place not only using the five senses, but our deeper insight as well. And we would always treasure what lies in the afterglow.

Nick Fuller

str2_ttrcaplaces_terencetoh_5_wildthingsNick Fuller, author of Wild Things

Where is your novel set, and why did you decide to set it there?

Wild Things is set deep in Taman Negara, Peninsular Malaysia. It was actually the setting that drove the creation of the story in the first place. My wife and I were visiting and, as I was meandering down the River Tembeling in a long tailed boat, the idea for the story just started to emerge. I was looking into the thick, seemingly impenetrable jungle, on either side of the river, wondering what secrets it could hide.

In your opinion, is it easier to invent a fictional place when you are writing, or to write about a real-life place?

I think that using a place that you know, or have at least visited, makes the writing easier. My story follows our trek through the jungle, I think that I would have really struggled to take the reader on their journey effectively if I had not been there myself. For me, it’s not only the visual impression that is given but also other aspects of your setting – the sounds, the smells and, for that jungle, the heat!

How can a writer properly capture the “soul” of a place in their writing?

The description of your setting needs to come from picturing the place in your mind very clearly. In the same way as you get to know your characters inside-out, you need to get to know your setting and location inside-out; without this, your flow of language and depth of visualisation is hindered. How can others see what you see, hear what you hear or and feel what you feel if you cannot experience these things yourself first. Whether that gets you to the “soul” of a place, I do not know, but in my experience, it gets you closer.

Sonia Mae
Sonia Mael

str2_ttrcaplaces_terencetoh_4_dontforgetSonia Mael, author of Don’t Forget To Remember

Where is your novel set, and why did you decide to set it there?

My novel starts off in the town of Armidale, Australia, where I once studied, and later, in other parts of Australia and Malaya. Armidale was a rural university town with a small population, but what it lacked in numbers it made up in the friendliness and kindness of its populace to us, the foreign students. It was a new experience to be thrown into the midst of a people of different culture, religion and outlook; even the spoken language, though English, had a different accent which was totally new to the uninitiated.

Do you think a piece of writing can still be 'Malaysian writing' even if it is set outside of Malaysia?

A book is defined by the writer, her education, her background, her life experiences. These shape and influence her depiction of the characters; how they see life, their values, their culture, the food they eat. Viewed in this light, even if the book is written outside of one’s homeland, it is still Malaysian.

In your opinion, is it easier to invent a fictional place when you are writing, or to write about a real-life place?

It is easier to describe a real-life place as compared with a fictional one. A real life place gives authenticity to the story. It would challenge the writer’s linguistic excellence to describe that particular scene with such accuracy that the reader is happy to see it on the screen of his imagination.

Arthur T. F. Foo
Arthur T. F. Foo

str2_ttrcaplaces_terencetoh_3_snowphoenixArthur T.Y. Foo, Author of Snow Phoenix And Me

Where is your novel set, and why did you decide to set it there?

Snow Phoenix And Me is set in Shanghai and Beijing during the early 20th century. Watching the re-runs of a couple of old TV dramas like The Bund and The Shell Game inspired me to write a tale about that warlord-era.

I have been to Shanghai and Beijing. The rich history, as well as how they have managed to maintain their old-world charm like the mystical Forbidden City and the Summer Palace just took my breath away.

What was the most challenging part about writing the setting for your novel?

Differentiating Shanghai and Beijing so that the readers would not get confused where they were when they read the story. Although the two cities are in China, they are also like night and day; then Shanghai was glamorous and modern; it was also known as Paris of the Orient, whereas Beijing was more conservative.

How can a writer properly capture the “soul” of a place in their writing?

To do that, the writer must not just write about a place’s physical details, but also describe the significant sounds, smells and feel of it. It also helps to describe how the character in the story responds to a particular situation there. An example is when Akecheta and Suet-foong (the two main characters) visit the Forbidden City in Chapter 13. Apart from describing the physical features of the palace, I tried to make this event more memorable by describing Akecheta “feeling” spirits of the past tailing them as they moved from one gate to another, under cold and foggy conditions.

Golda Mowe
Golda Mowe

str2_ttrcaplaces_terencetoh_2_ibanjourneyGolda Mowe, author of Iban Journey

Where is your novel set, and why did you decide to set it there?

Iban Journey is set in Sarawak. The protagonist’s journey begins in Batang Lupar until he eventually settles at Batang Lebaan (a branch off the Rejang River), the area of my Iban grandparents’ longhouse. This meant that I had first-hand knowledge of regional lifestyle, climate and history. I consider this place to be one of the most adventurous and magical places in the world.

As a writer, what sort of details are important to you when you write about a place?

Details that tug at the heartstrings, or something that creates a metaphor. For example when I put my characters in a hopeless place, I use light (fireflies, luminescent mushrooms or moss) to symbolise hope.

If writing about a real-life place, should a writer be allowed to change details about it to fit the story?

That depends a lot on what kind of audience you expect. For example, if you are targeting history buffs, then you must make sure that your fiction is accurate to real life, even if the charaters are imaginary. At the very least, you will have to explain what was changed, in an appendix. I know from reader feedback in (my previous book) Iban Dream, that some of my readers are folklorists, so in the acknowledgment in Iban Journey I have mentioned parts where I have deviated from Iban folklore.

The Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards are a precursor to BookFest@Malaysia 2016 which will take place from July 2 to 10 at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Look out for more information on the region’s biggest book event in these pages soon. Star Media Group Berhad is a media partner of BookFest@Malaysia 2016.

The RCA nominees are chosen from the top 10 bestselling nonfiction (and top 10 fiction) books at Popular and Harris bookstores nationwide last year. As in the previous nine years the awards have been held, you get to decide the winners when you vote for your favourite titles.

What’s more, you also have the chance to be rewarded with the RCA’s “Read To Vote, Vote To Win” component: Send in your votes for your top three favourite titles in the fiction and non-fiction categories (six choices all together) and stand a chance to win a RM50 Popular gift voucher, as well as a free one-year Popular membership card.

The voting period is ongoing and will end on May 22.

So, how do you vote?

There are two ways: 1) fill in the forms available at all Popular and Harris bookstores nationwide (note that there is no limit to the number of forms you can send in); 2) vote online by visiting, or

Winners will be announced on July 2 at the Plenary Theatre, Level 3, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Do come along and cheer on your favourite authors and support the local publishing industry!

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