Shared Settings

Sometimes your setting isn’t yours.

When you’re writing in a shared universe, you, as the author, are coming into a setting where someone else has already done some of the designing.

This might be franchise work (consider a setting such as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, or a novel series based on a video game or role-playing game), or perhaps you’re just role-playing for fun. The setting that you are writing in has already been outlined. Your job, as a storyteller, is to create a novel or short story or character that fits into that universe. This involves reflecting not merely the setting, but also “flavour,” themes, and overall experience.

If you’re writing in a shared setting, my number one advice is to respect the rules of the setting. If the setting states that human beings each have one and only one magical talent, or there are no aliens in outer space—please follow those rules. Your characters don’t have to defy the rules of the setting to be interesting. The franchise owners are looking for people who can tell compelling stories within their pre-existing setting. They want characters who are complex and interesting and who fit within the rules—characters who embody the kinds of people who can live in the world of the video game, or role-playing game, or movie universe, or whatever kind of world it might be.

Sometimes it seems as though beginning writers think the best way to make their characters interesting is to break the rules of the setting—to be the first known alien in the no-alien galaxy, or to have three magical talents in a setting where most people have only one. What makes a compelling character isn’t what their character can do, it’s the kind of person their character is, and the ways in which that character interacts with other people and the world around her/him. Similarly, a powerful, rule-breaking artifact doesn’t, in itself, make for an interesting story. Readers are looking for a tale that conveys the flavour of the setting, not a story intent on breaking the setting to suit itself.

If you’re writing in a shared setting, please read the lore before you begin outlining your story, and ask your editor, lore keeper, game master or overseer if you have any questions. It’s much easier to ask about an idea first, rather than have to make major edits to a completed novel because you assumed that all sci fi would have aliens, or forgot that in this setting there are no aliens in outer space. Suddenly you’ve got a book about human-alien relations that doesn’t fit in the setting you’ve been contracted to write about.

Shared settings work because of common rules accepted by everyone who’s creating works within that setting. If you’re hired to work for a shared setting, it’s because the people who hired you want stories that reflect the world of that IP (intellectual property) or setting. Your job is to reflect the world of the shared setting, as creatively as you can, while providing an experience of that setting that its audience is seeking.

How to Describe Your World to an Artist

A guest post by Holly Heisey

So you’ve just finished your masterpiece. Maybe, like me, you focus on the story in the first few drafts and the world itself is a colorful blur. If an artist asked you right now to describe the feel of your world for your book cover, could you do it?

Or maybe you lead with description, your prose so gorgeous a reader could live in it. You know all the details of your world, and you can describe any object in a given room. But could you describe the visual feel of your world? Could you pare down the details?

As an artist, I work with authors all the time on distilling their visions into cover art. Most authors know their story well, and many have a good idea of what they’d like on their cover, but they often have a hard time translating those concepts into visual ideas. A visual representation of a story is a different medium than the story itself. A cover, unlike a summary, shouldn’t describe the world, but invite the reader into it.

So how do you translate the vision in your head for an artist?

First, gather reference. Artists love reference—it’s like gold for dragons. Have you ever dream-casted your novel or collected images that looked like places in your world? That will come in handy now. Try breaking your world into four categories: people, places, things, and ideas. Google image search, Pinterest, Behance, and Artstation are your friends. Gather photos and paintings of things that could inhabit your world. For the idea category, put in images that evoke the emotions, themes, or specific scenes in your story. Building the visual feel of your book is a lot like finding your novel’s theme as you write. You’ll know it when you start to see it.

Here’s an “idea” Pinterest board for one of my story projects:

The next step is research of a different sort. A lot of authors overlook market research, but it’s too important to skip! Your cover is an invitation, but it’s also like a secret visual code. Your cover, if targeted correctly, will tell a reader exactly the kind of story they’ll get in under two seconds. A good cover artist will know the market trends, but you should know them, too. You might give your artist a beautiful description of your world and they’ll make a beautiful cover, but if your novel is adult fantasy and it reads at a glance as contemporary YA, that’s a serious setback. You want to give yourself as much advantage in reader expectations and sales as you can.

The quickest and most targeted way I’ve found to do market research is to run two searches: the first in your book’s specific ebook categories on Amazon, and the second as a more general search on Goodreads. On Amazon, look at the current ebook bestseller listings for your specific categories. The ebook charts will give the truest feel of the indie market—you’ll see exactly the kinds of covers that are selling books right now. Some of these covers will be amazing, and some…not so amazing. But most of them will have pieces of the visual tropes—or code—for that genre.

As an example, if you’re writing space opera, bestselling books often have starships. Big, colorful, epic starships. Those that don’t are still colorful and epic, sometimes with characters in action. Lots of blue/green, lots of red/orange. Lots of shiny tech and lens flares. This is the genre code for space opera.

Save the covers you like and that are similar to the visual feel you discovered while gathering reference earlier. And once you have a few favorites, it’s a good idea to look them up on Goodreads and explore the “readers also enjoyed” links. This will open up your search to books published in the last five years and bring in more traditional publishing trends. Study these, too. Collect your favorites. But be careful not to collect more than a few covers from over five years ago, as chances are the trends will have changed.

Now that you know the visual feel of your book and the cover tropes of the audience you’re targeting, look again at the references you’ve gathered for the feel of your story world. What are the big things and recurring trends? What evokes the most emotion? Write these elements down in a list. Look at the genre covers you’ve just gathered. What are the genre codes you want to target? Write these elements down, too, and compare the lists. Where do they match up? What gives the stronger image? For example, if you have an urban fantasy with a cool fight scene in the forest, but most of the book takes place in the city and that will make the stronger marketing image, you’ll need to decide what best represents the book as a whole.Not everything needs to match up, and you don’t need to hit all of the genre cover tropes—it’s probably a good idea not to. You want your own twist on this, within the genre. Look for the things that will make your cover stand out. But keep in mind, too, that the tropes are a visual code that people will read, whether you send the right signals or the wrong ones. Make sure your ideas hit at least a few tropes in your genre.

When you’ve found the elements you like, describe them in detail. Break them again into people, places, things, and ideas, and describe every detail of your main character or characters (physical appearance, clothing, emotional and mental states), the strongest places and most interesting settings, any objects or effects the characters or places might need, and any other cool things that might help convey the emotional feel. If the genre you’re targeting has covers that tend more toward abstract design than characters or scenery, still describe it all, paying particular attention to props and emotions. Include some of the reference pics you’ve gathered for each category, and some of your favorite covers that are similar to what you’d like for your book.

And that’s it. You now have a solid page or two of workable details and visual guides to take to an artist, who can help you hone your vision from there. This is a great process to do if you’re self-publishing, but I think it’s valuable for authors aiming at traditional publishing as well. You’ll know exactly how to describe your world to anyone who asks. And you’ll know your world better for yourself, which is the true gold.



About the Author:

Holly Heisey is an author, illustrator, and designer with a love of spaceships and a tendency to quote Monty Python. They’ve had stories in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Clockwork Phoenix 5, and Escape Pod, and have designed and illustrated for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Future Chronicles anthology series, and USA Today and bestselling authors. Holly lives in Arizona with their pet cacti, enjoying the heat and plotting to take over the world.

You can find Holly at, on Instagram @hollyheiseydesign, and Facebook at


Realistic-ish Exotic Settings

It seems that anyone who wants to write in the action, adventure, or thriller genres has to have a bazillion air miles on their cards in order to fly out to all of those exotic locations, write that section of the story, and then jet off to the next locale. What if you want to write about those places but don’t have the means?

There’s a couple of things you can do.

Wing It and Make It All Up

Yes, this is an option. You can set your mutant giant ant story in Nevada, and they all die because they’re allergic to saguaro cactus. The problem with this is saguaros live in the Sonora Desert in Arizona.

Winging it will require a lot of research for almost everything you want to do in your designated setting — if it exists in real life. Should you set your tale in a world made of cheeses and populated by naked mole rats, you’re free to make up everything to your heart’s content. The one thing you will need to do is make sure that once you set a rule you follow it, just like the laws of physics on Earth. If your characters have to keep one foot on the ground else they float off towards the ever-present giant hungry mouth floating in the sky, they can’t ever jump for joy or fall off of a building.

Whatever rules you develop, you’re stuck with them. If you change things mid-story, your readers will be irate.

Limit Your Story to Somewhere You’ve Lived

If you happen to be a former military member (thank you for your service), the spouse of one (also thank you for your service), or even a military brat that visited and/or lived in different countries, congratulations. You should have enough background to write a story with the general look and feel of that locale.

There are a few caveats, though. You’re familiar with that area for a specific time period. If I wanted to write a story about Brooklyn from my time living there, it would be from the late nineteen-sixties or -seventies. That’s the ballpark swath of time my memories are based on. If I wanted to have two characters meet at Elaine’s Avenue M Deli, that wouldn’t work for a 1970-era tale. Elaine’s started their business in 2001. People who are familiar with that area will know this and it will knock them out of the book.

You could always make up an establishment, but make sure you’re vague enough that people can’t say, “Oh, that’s where DiFara’s Pizza is. He’s been there since 1965. Also known as one of the very best places to get a pizza in the galaxy.”

Beyond the businesses and buildings, the overall look and feel of places change over time. What you remember as a gritty blue-collar area might have been gentrified, slowly filling up with hipsters and people with sculpted beards drinking Starbucks through a straw. If you still know people from the old neighborhood, get them on the phone or drop an email asking them to tell you how things are these days. It gives you a good excuse to call your old Uncle Johnny and Aunt Grace and chat for an hour, assuming they’re not late for a Groupon appointment offering buy one, get one free skydiving lessons.

Oh, and for folks who don’t think Brooklyn isn’t an exotic location, try visiting it. Besides, it’s the capital of the known universe and the place to go when one wants the best pizza.

Google Street View

This is one of the best things to help authors since instant coffee. While it doesn’t cover the entire globe, it will certainly do a decent job of letting you know what most places look like within the last couple of years.

If you want to virtually be in an Eagle’s song, you can go stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. In fact, there is a park dedicated to that very activity, including a statue. In some shots, you may even find a flatbed Ford.

Now it is possible to walk (or drag your cursor) through places like Prague or Berlin. If you want to describe your spy running through the Palazzo Poggi Museum at the University of Bologna, Italy, you can describe dashing through the doorway between the sculpture of a nude woman and a human skeleton.

Travel Books

While geared more towards tourists, picking up a Lonely Planet or Fodor’s travel guide can help you to bring some realism to your exotic settings. If your budget is limited, you can always visit your local library for the latest copy or pick up one from a year or two prior from used bookstores or a library sale.

These guides give you a good flavor of each area, discuss some of the unique qualities and places hidden within each locale, and sometimes include iconic things to do and see. People who live there or have visited will certainly remember Damnoen Saduak Floating Market or the giant maze that makes up the Chatuchak Weekend Market just off of Phahonyothin Road. It’s easy to get lost in there, and an excellent spot for your spy to ditch the folks following her. The extensive descriptions will help you to get the feel of the place and fire up descriptions of all senses.

Just Google It

In the end, you can just give Google Search a shot. This is probably the most used method authors use, so you may end up missing out on the spots that are off of the beaten path. Try to dig into reviews of places to get visitors opinions. Maybe the museum is nice but it smells like fish because of the cannery next door. Those little details will help to solidify the setting with your readers, especially folks with the travel experience.

After all, it may help you to properly plan the extermination of that giant radioactive ant problem your characters have if you shift them so they’re standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.



About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist and poet; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and


When Your Setting is a Wild Card

Normally when you establish a setting in a story you only have to do it once. Unless some cataclysmic event happens, it’s not going to change enough to require another description. Huzzah! But what if your setting isn’t a clearly defined place? What if it’s more…well, this.


Okay, so your setting might not be the Dark Dimension but it may be like The Demos Oneiroi I created for The Moonflower in that it’s less of a landscape and more of an abstract concept given physical form. The Demos Oneiroi is the dream world of the Ancient Greek gods and since it’s quite literally the stuff of dreams it can be anything and everything all at once. A place like this, one that can change on a whim, can be hard to explain. Describing it with enough detail to get the point across without overwhelming the reader is a very tricky thing to do. It’s like doing a paint by number except all the numbers are imaginary.

The way I handled it is to treat the setting like an unreliable narrator. I established early on that the setting can and does change on a whim and that it’s perfectly normal for the abnormal to happen. If a lush forested park suddenly turns into zombie Jimmy Hoffa’s waterpark from hell, it’s all good. The reader doesn’t have to panic or re-read the previous page to figure out if they missed something. They can roll with it and get in the line for the giant octopus tentacle slide.

I hope I didn’t lose anyone there. I realize saying “do this tricky thing by treating it like another tricky thing” is not the best explanation; especially if you don’t know how to create an unreliable narrator. Don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you perplexed. It’s not quite as scary as it sounds and I promise, you don’t need to make a bargain with an otherworldly being to do this.

Dormammu, I’ve come to establish setting.

Since I keep throwing Doctor Strange references into this let’s use that film as a starting point. (Spoiler alert.)

In this acid trip on film we see multiple worlds, not all of which obey the same laws of physics that ours does. Besides blowing Stephen’s mind, it’s also establishing in the minds of the audience that there are many strange place the story can take us. So when Stephen does go to the Dark Dimension at the end of the film, we’re not shocked by it — especially since we’ve already seen weirder locations.

How do you create that on the page? In order to write an abstract setting you have to approach it in pretty much the same way that they did in the film. Start out by describing the setting as it is in that moment to create a base line. Then either through dialogue or a bit of exposition establish that things in this place aren’t necessarily what they appear to be, and that they won’t stay as they are now for long. It’s important to let the reader know that it’s gonna get a bit weird so they aren’t taken by surprise. A shock like that will knock them out of the story before you get to the really good stuff. After you’ve prepped them for the coming shift that’s when you can make the unexpected appear. How you do that, you may ask? Well that’s up to you. My favorite way is to have an inexperienced character encounter a shift in the landscape while accompanied by a more experienced character. The experienced character displays their knowledge and saves/helps the less experienced through until they’re back at a safe spot. This way I get to let my landscape live up to its potential while advancing the less experienced character’s development. Later in the story I can have them on their own, facing the same dangers — or worse — in that same landscape and it’s more plausible that they’ll survive.

It’s okay if it takes a few revisions to really get it to work well. It is a tricky thing but the freedom it gives you to create and be original makes it a lot of fun. Plus, a setting like this never gets boring. Bonus!