I am getting some feedback on my writing but one of the questions that come back is that the readers are not sure about the setting. White the story was marked as fantasy, nothing fantastic had happen yet. The chapter describes a messy apartment, drug dealers, the mob, and mentioned Brooklyn.
I meant for the reader to quickly understood that this was normal modern life. I thought I would not have to mention anything and it would just be understood.

How can I tell the reader that everything is normal? I feel like if I focus on any details it will just make it seem that other details are not normal. I can't explain every detail of modern life, that's just everything.

I have some thoughts of mentioning the current president, but in today's climate I feel like my story would become instantly political if I do anything except the coldest info dump.

How can I point out that things are mundane to the characters and mundane to the reader? Does this complain about unclear setting mean that I may be having other problems that readers and not expressing?

4 Answers 4


I'd argue the trick is not to do anything. I think in many genres the default assumption is that it's "normal" present day (whatever you meant by normal, I mean there's no alternative history involved). If someone reads your story shortly after it's written, they'll correctly feel as much; if they read it years later or more, your work will date itself anyway. Seriously, read or watch anything more than 20 years old to see how it happens automatically.


It is easy enough, I would think: Contrive some reason to mention the year.

Mike opened the box to unveil Nancy's birthday cake. "What do you think?"

Alice looked and suppressed a laugh, the cake had nice flowers and vines, but he'd had piped on it, Happy Birthday Nancy! 1978 -- 2018.

"Oh my god, Mike, it looks like a tombstone!"

"You said don't say happy fortieth, and don't put forty candles, so what was I supposed to do?"

"Just Happy Birthday Nancy, and nothing else. How you ever got married is beyond me. Scrape the dates off."

"It will ruin it."

"I'll do it, dufus."

Or anything else that strikes you. In film, you will notice they do the same thing quite often, find an excuse to show or mention the current year, in passing, especially if it is the very near future. You can use Birthdays, anniversaries of people or major events. Like "President Fenhall is expected to lose support in the 2022 midterms... [blah blah blah]"

You can even use major events few people know of, or know the date of: Just work them into the conversation:

As she sat down, Alice said, "The Fourth of July. Happy sixth anniversary, Mike!"

Frank frowned. "Anniversary? Did you get married and not tell me?"

Mike said, "Since the Higgs Boson was announced, of course. July fourth, twenty twelve. Thank you for remembering, Alice."

"Brainiacs," Frank said. "Why do I hang out with you guys?"

Alice knit her brow, pretending to think hard. "We're the only people that love you?"

Frank grinned as if suddenly enlightened. "I guess there's that! Thanks, Alice!"

  • 1
    That's interesting. I wonder if these kinds of things would date the book hard. I know that's kind of what I am asking but.. one would hope a book would stay "green" for 20 yrs. We can read Flight Club and imagine it today. I wonder if something like that would make a hard cut to the 90s. Also would it be weird if the rest of the book the dates don't matter
    – Andrey
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 21:52
  • @Andrey No more so than mentioning the President's name! If you want a softer reference, talk about somebody getting a new iPhone 10 or something like that. If you want even softer, talk about problems that will be fixed soon, like iphone coverage, or slow Internet, or are we ever going back to the moon, or who's the next 007 if Daniel Craig doesn't do another (he is committed to the 2019 film). If you want a story still green in 20 years, you can't have it both ways and can't mention tech / entertainment / famous people at all, it will all be radically different in 20 years.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 22:09

I think in this case, the golden rule of "show, don't tell" is best. And I don't think it would have to take a lot of writing at all to subtly express this.

Maybe your character hears traffic. That single line of text about what your character hears tells you cars exist, and cities, and maybe rush-hour traffic, which all point towards a modern, city setting.

Also references can be made towards technology. Maybe their cell phone goes off. Or any number of ways you can subtly show that modern, familiar technology exists in this world. That's a way you can help familiarize your audience with where the story takes place without focusing too much on describing the setting.


I would avoid making any mention of it. This is more of a job for your publisher, your illustrator, and your synopsis. Think about all of the information a reader gets about a book before they purchase it. If they don't know what the setting is by the illustration, by your synopsis, and what is delivered in marketing, you have a major problem in your production of your work.

The only thing as far as setting that you need to really worry about is what is different from what my reader is experiencing right now that I should paint for them. If it is a regular day on a farm in Ohio, or a fast pace day in New York City, the interactions, the things your character will do will start depicting the time period from whether they pulled out a smartphone, to grabbing a Starbucks coffee on their way to work. In your work, people generally default to modern, real-life fiction, unless indicated otherwise, but some of those questions should be addressed in how your book is delivered to its audience.

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