Tania Unsworth, Children's Writer

getting the setting

13 Sep 2019

I don’t know how I imagined I could write a story about tigers in India without actually going to India to see tigers. I thought it would be enough to scroll through lots of pictures and visit the tigers in my local zoo. It wasn’t.

By the end of my first draft, I was in trouble. I had the plot and the characters, but behind the action the scenes were as flat as stage sets. I could smell the inauthenticity, and I knew readers would too. They might not know exactly why or how, but it would be there nevertheless; a sense of dullness, growing with each page they turned.

No matter how many books I’ve written, I’m constantly astonished by my ability to forget how to actually write. Setting matters.

In desperation, and blowing all the money I was probably ever going to get for my book, even if I sold it, I went to India and spent a week visiting two tiger reserves, Kanha and Bandhavgarh, both in Madhya Pradesh. This is what I learned.

The setting of a story is a full body experience. It’s the smell of dust and wild basil, the breeze on your face, the silver light of dawn and the golden light of evening. It’s the taste of water in a metal cannister, and the sound-filled silence of the deepest forest.

Setting doesn’t just sit there. It does stuff. It conveys mood and heightens tension. The sinister clutch of a strangler vine. The calmness of a meadow. The way the long grass shivers even when the air is still.

It’s also useful for plot. In my first draft, I’d put a lot of effort into trying to arrange the setting to fit my story. Now I realized I was better off doing it the other way around. The setting itself could help shape the plot. The fact that the sun set surprisingly quickly, for example, and that the nights were so cold you’d freeze without a fire. Or the way that the forest was almost impenetrable in certain spots; a person on foot would have to make detours to avoid the densest areas. Easy to get lost in a situation like that…

I discovered that that the more I looked, the more ideas I got. Two termite mounds that seemed like weirdly caped figures in the dusk. A huge spider web that you’d walk right into if you weren’t careful. The way the light came through the trees in great columns, as sacred as a cathedral.

I also learned that tigers in the wild aren’t like tigers in a zoo. They’re leaner and more weathered looking. But the biggest difference is in the way they move. They stride across your path with a purpose and confidence never seen behind the bars of a cage. They are the owners here. Long before you stop to look at them, they have been looking at you. It makes them seem twice as large and a hundred times more real.

I filled up my pad with frenzied notes, came home, and started writing my book all over again.

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