Setting in non-fiction

Writing question of the day: do you think setting is more or less important in non-fiction than it is in fiction?

I don’t think setting in non-fiction is more or less important than setting in fiction, but that it plays a different purpose.

In a fiction work, the setting becomes an integral part of the story as it is part of the world in which your created characters live. You create the setting just as you would create the character; as a writer you have the ability to do with the setting the same as you would do for a character and create their world.

In a non-fiction work, especially in a biography, you are given what the setting is based on who your character is. You don’t have the ability to make the character and setting fit each other, but rather have to explain how the setting is important to your character, and what they did while in that setting. How much setting information you provide is based on your intended audience. In a biography about Abraham Lincoln for young readers, you could describe his birthplace as a log cabin in Kentucky. In the same biography for an older reader, you would go into more detail such as the actual county, how big the log cabin was, what it looked like, and what was happening elsewhere in the country and how that affected his family life in Kentucky. The basic setting (log cabin in Kentucky) is the same but the circumstances around it may be presented differently based on the audience.

For examples of effective setting in non-fiction, read Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor by Russell Freedman. In just a few words the setting is so clear to the reader – I can see and feel “humid lint-filled air” and hear and see “the stifling dust of the coal breakers” and it makes me interested in the story. If this were just presented as “bad work conditions for children” it would not be as effective. None of that language is about the main character, Lewis Hine, but it shows what was happening around him to make him take the actions he did. The setting was extremely important in his case.



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