Creating Realistic Settings

This article  appeared in Readers Entertainment Magazine July 2017 




Ever have a yearning to visit a distant land? I do, all the time. My latest was a trip to Australia and Tasmania. Our world is vast and spectacular with no end of places to explore. Time and money is the only thing to hold me back.


To get my fix, I do what any casual adventurer does with gypsy blood in her veins. I write about those places. Currently I’m working on a series of Jewel Intrigue Novels for Kensington’s Lyrical Press. And the one thing they all have in common, besides the jewel thing, is that each of the books are set in an exotic locale, a faraway place that I’ve never been. Take DIAMOND LEGACY for example. It is set in Botswana, Africa. It’s a place I’d dearly love to visit one day. Yet reviews consistently remark on the vivid scenery and sensory detail, the way location takes on a life of its own. Some swear I’ve been there.

The question is – how can one set a book in Botswana if you’ve never prowled the savannah or drifted the Okavango Delta? The answer is easier than you’d think. Three words – global satellite imagery. Using our keyboards, we can magically zoom in on virtually every corner of the planet, measure distance, determine the geographical lay of the land, scope out cities, find street names in Paris, New York, or Istanbul. You can get directions, note landmarks, it is the next best thing to traveling there yourself.

My favorite site is Google Earth because it has 3D capability, street views, and historical data. But it’s not alone in the market. Here’s a sampling of some sites I’ve used.


Now we’re rolling, but more is needed to give a story location an intimacy that feels genuine. One important factor is weather. Your book is set in Africa and you’ve painted a beautiful sunny day, only your timeline has the characters there during monsoon season. There are sites that offer atmospheric data, weather patterns, average temperatures, ocean currents, even shipping lanes.  (limited to USA’s side of the planet) (both sides of the planet)

Which leads us to Greenwich Meantime (GMT). Wonder what time it is in Botswana? Its eight hours ahead of USA’s Central Time Zone. Check out these sites for your desired story location.               

Want to get deeper into what makes a country tick, the dry and factual of profiles and statistics? What does their flag look like? What’s the current political climate? Are there hot zones? Need to research population demographics? Languages and religions? How about the country’s natural resources, currency, maritime claims, economies, or historical data? It’s all here at this one highly informative site hosted by USA’s own Central Intelligence Agency.

Let’s not forget tourism sites. They are a wealth of information and always highlight the best a country has to offer. They give a great perspective on local flavor and color, flora and fauna, culture and diversity. The list here can be endless, so I chose two that I’ve used for my stories as an example of what they can offer.

A nice benefit of tourism sites is that, at your request they mail brochures, catalogs, photos, and other paraphernalia. But I should warn you this practice can be dangerous. Because if you’re like me, having all that temptation in your hand only feeds the travel bug that lurks just below the surface.

Lastly, I’ll mention one more online resource for detailed information. Lots of people write trip critiques or publish small journals of their travels that are chock full of tips, hints, things to look for or avoid. And sometimes, they can spark ideas.

Also, go to your favorite search engine and type in your story location next to words like critique or journal. Or experiment with words like beware, fantasy, adventure, or some other descriptive. You’ll be surprised at some of the stuff that pops up.

By the time you’ve hit all these sites, printed off enough material to burn an ink cartridge, and fired up those travel-induced endorphins, you should have enough ammunition at your fingertips to successfully paint a world you’ve never actually visited.

Monica McCabe, Author and Adventuress