Using a Setting You Know to Set Your Characters Free

by Kaira Rouda
published in Writing

When I sit down to write a novel, setting comes first. And the setting needs to be familiar. I spent much of my time in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, before we moved to the suburbs of Southern California. All my books have been set in one of these two locations. 

I love that my characters, like me, are creatures of the suburbs and these familiar stomping grounds flow through my imagination with ease, leaving enough space for my characters to take over the story. I can smell the grass in Ohio, and I can feel the salt air in California even if I’m simply sitting at my desk, writing. My characters visit my favorite restaurants in my imagination, and those places are based on my real memories. 

I find the setting to be the foundation of my stories.

And that setting is the suburbs. I love the competition seething beneath the surface of these seemingly perfect lives. The drama of the proverbial keeping up with the Joneses. The soccer moms and the football dads, the sometimes ruthless striving and social climbing that can happen in the outwardly perfect places. These are the situations that form my characters. The places they love to live in and do devious things in. That is, until now. 

With my new novel, The Widow, I’ve left the suburbs and plopped my characters inside the DC beltway and I had so much fun. My husband had the honor of his lifetime serving a term in congress, and I took advantage of being in DC as often as I could. I trained to become a docent at the Library of Congress and learned how to lead tours of the White House. I climbed to the top of the capitol dome and attended every social event I could. I jumped in with both feet, even serving on the committee for the First Lady’s Luncheon. And because I did all of this, and lived about half of every month in DC for almost two years, it became another foundational setting for me and my writing. 

I loved the eeriness, the density of the city can evoke, and I loved the ability to walk to fabulous restaurants for dinner. The charm of the district’s townhomes and row houses with views, if you’re lucky, of a fabulous monument or the capitol dome lit up during session is incomparable. I loved wandering the district and learning about its history and charm. 

The Eastern Market area, one of the longest-running city markets, became a place where I shopped for cheese at the cheese store, grabbed flowers from the local florist, and otherwise enjoyed the vibrancy of city life. In the summers, young moms and their children would play in the fountains outside our apartment building for hours. I visited Arlington Cemetery, marveling at the feeling visiting our country’s fallen heroes evokes in your soul. 

I made the most of my time in DC, and I’m so glad I did. 

When the story of The Widow popped into my head, I knew I had to write it and because I felt at home, so to speak, on The Hill, my characters did, too. In fact, Jody Asher, the congressman’s wife, has enjoyed thirty years on The Hill when the story opens. We find her climbing the grand stairs of the Library of Congress—my favorite building in DC—and as she did, as we did, I could feel the indentations in the marble steps from all the generations of visitors. 

We were there together, in the story, even though I was at home in California, in my office behind my desk. Jody and her daughter grab lunch at a bistro located across the street from my first apartment in DC near Eastern Market, and Jody and Martin happily live in the townhome my husband and I lived in for a year on the Northeast side of the city, only five blocks from the Supreme Court. 

Martin goes to work in the Raymond House office building, where my husband’s office was, and Jody remembers decorating it when they first arrived in DC. That’s an experience I had myself, and because I was there, and lived it, I found it so poignantly present the setting came alive for me in my imagination, and hopefully for you when you read the story of The Widow. 

I remember walking through Statuary Hall in the Capitol where each state gets to honor a famous citizen with a grand statue. It’s fun to stroll through, discovering who is who, looking the person up if you don’t know who it is. Just beyond, down a corridor, I found a salute to the first women who served in Congress. 

And it was there, down that hall, that I first heard of the tradition of The Widow’s Mandate. 

First, there was Mae Ella Nolan from California, who became a U.S. Representative after her husband died in 1922. Throughout the next century, forty-seven additional American women followed in her footsteps, including Mary Bono, Sonny Bono’s wife, and recently, Cindy McCain, John McCain’s wife.

If I hadn’t been exploring my setting, I wouldn’t have connected to this tradition and found my story there. Of course, since I’m a suspense author, my twist on The Widow’s Mandate is a little darker. As Diane Kincaid, a political scientist, wrote: “Statistically speaking, for women aspiring to serve in Congress, the best husband has been a dead husband.” How could I not find a story there? 

So my tip: If you know your setting well, if you’ve lived it, breathed it, your characters will be free to roam, explore and get into trouble. And you can create knowing the story is grounded in your reality. To me, that’s the best. So be sure to go explore the place you live, see it from a character’s eyes. It’s wonderful what’s waiting out there. 

Kaira Rouda is a multiple award–winning, Amazon Charts and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary fiction that explores what goes on beneath the surface of seemingly perfect lives. Her novels of domestic suspense include Somebody’s Home, The Next Wife, The Favorite Daughter, Best Day Ever, and All the Difference. To date, Kaira’s work has been translated into more than ten languages. She lives in Southern California with her family. For more information, visit

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