Creative Writing Prompts: Start with a Setting

08, Feb 2017 by Kathy Steffen">Kathy Steffen in Brainstorming,Writing Craft     , ,   12 Comment

The DaVinci Code begins with a murder in the Louvre. The story of Sarah’s Key had to take place in France. In the case of Water for Elephants, the setting—a circus—moves with the story but is a complete world nonetheless. A setting does more than add interest. If your story can happen anywhere and your setting does not affect the actual story, rethink it. Make sure your story world is integral to the story (for more writing tips on setting/worldbuilding, see Entering Other Worlds: Worldbuilding Beyond Fantasy and Science Fiction.)

I keep a list of settings. In fact, I keep a list of many things to help jar my creativity while brainstorming—core fears, phobias, careers for characters, character types—just about anything I think might help my brain make a creative cross-connection and get a new idea. I look at brainstorming as a musician practices playing scales—exercising my creativity just makes it stronger.

Of all the lists I keep, setting is one I use often. When I am freethinking, I close my eyes and point at random. Sometimes when I’m stuck in my manuscript, I look over this list and see if I can’t jar an idea loose. Sometimes I match the settings up. I also use other lists and randomly choose from one list, then the other. Anything to get my creative juices going again.

Here is my list of places or settings for you to begin your own list and use as creative writing prompts.

Choose a setting

Write about what happens at a(n):


__________ Academy            Abbey                                     Airport

Alley(s)                                   Alligator Farm                       Art Gallery

Art Studio                              Artist Colony                          Auto Junkyard

Ancient Pyramid                  Animal Sanctuary                  Animal Shelter

Animal Research Facility   Art Museum                           Aquarium

Barber Shop                          Baseball Stadium                  Basement

Beach                                      Beauty Salon                          Blood Bank

Blood Drive                           Bookstore                                Botanical Garden

Bridge                                     Buddhist Temple

Cabin                                      Castle                                      Casino

Cathedral                               Cave (Bat, Collapsed, Crystal)

Cemetery                               Center for Disease Control Laboratory

Cheap Hotel                          Chinatown (any city)            Church

Circus                                     City Dump                              City Rooftop(s)

City Street                             Coal Mine                                Coffee House

College Dorm Room           Concert Hall                            Corporate Board Room

Day Spa                                  Distillery

Fairground                             Fishing Boat                           Floating Fish Factory

Football Stadium                  Fort

Garden                                    Graveyard                               Gymnasium

Highway Rest Stop                Hospital                                  Hospital Board Room

Insectarium                          Jazz Club

Landfill                                   Lighthouse                             Logging Camp (Town)

Mansion                                 Mannequin Factory              Medical Laboratory

Mississippi River Barge      Mosque

New Orleans during Mardi Gras

Nuclear Reactor                     Nursing Home

Observatory                           Opera House

Palace                                     Park                                   Pet Grooming Salon

Precious Metal Mine (Gold, Silver, Copper)                      Priory

Prison                                     Police Station                       Pottery Studio

Previously Undiscovered Island

Previously Undiscovered Planet

Principal’s Office

Racetrack                               Rainforest                              Roadside Motel

Roadkill Pickup Truck

Salt Mine                                Sanitarium                             Schoolroom

School Lab                             Secret Hideaway                   Sewer

Shack                                      Shoeshine Stand                   Shopping Mall

Small Town                           Spider Farm                           Steel Mill

Steam Ship (or Boat)          Synagogue

Temple                                   Theater                                  Tower

Trailer Park                           Train Graveyard                  Train Station


Wax Museum                       Wildlife Ranch                       Windmill

Winery                                   Woods                                      Worm Ranch


2. Consider stories taking place somewhere famous

Alcatraz                                              Amazon Rain Forest

Angkor Wat, Cambodia                  Buckingham Palace

Death Valley                                      Disneyland

Easter Island                                     Forbidden City

Galapagos Islands                            Golden Gate Bridge

Grand Canyon                                   Great Barrier Reef

Great Wall                                          Hollywood

Jerusalem                                           Kashmir Valley

Machu Picchu                                    Mount Everest

Nile                                                      Palace of Versailles

Pike’s Peak                                         Pompeii

Potala Palace, Tibet                         Pyramids of Giza and Great Sphinx

Sahara Desert                                   Serengeti

Sistine Chapel                                   Statue of Liberty

Stonehenge                                        Taj Mahal

Tombstone                                         Uffizi Gallery

Valley of the Kings                           Venice (Canals)

The White House                              Zen Garden of Kyoto

Combine Ideas

Insert a place from above into one of the following prompts and see what happens. As Stephen King says: “…good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun…”

So generate the atmosphere to create. Do some cross thinking and allow a good story idea to come literally from nowhere. It may hit you during these creative writing exercises, or more likely, a few hours later when you are eating, running, taking a shower, while sleeping, the next morning… Why not wake up your muse and get her thinking? After all, you may come up with the next Pet Cemetery concept.

Pet __________ (okay, Pet Cemetery has been done and so has the idea of combining a pet and racetrack (The Art of Racing in the Rain) but what about other stories including pets? What about  pet & theater? Pet & palace? Pet & casino? Pet & circus? Pet & Stonehenge?)

Old Folks __________ (yes, “home” is the first thought, but keep going.) What about old folks & circus? Old folks & college dorm room? Old folks & garden—Yikes! I just had a thought about planting old folk parts and getting…what? Veggies that if you eat them, you become possessed? Or is this garden a connection to the otherworld? Will the garden produce wisdom? Prophets? Or a zombie plague?

See how this works? So get your creative juices flowing and don’t look back.

Abandoned __________ (logging camp, church, fish boat, trailer park…you get the idea)

Haunted __________

A murder at ­­­­­­­­­­__________

A secret at __________

A magical __________

An evil __________

A previously undiscovered __________

__________ in the woods

Old __________ turned into apartments

A __________ shrine

A __________ museum

A __________ graveyard


Combine two settings

Write about a blood drive at a nuclear reactor. Or a roadkill pickup truck at a casino. What about an animal protection sanctuary on city rooftops? A mannequin factory near Stonehenge or a secret hideaway wax museum?

Lots of ideas come to mind—not all good, but that’s okay! The point is to jog your brain (or muse) into generating new connections. As your subconscious tries to make sense of connections, ideas will come. Try it. May many excellent, fresh, exciting ideas come flooding your way!


Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at

12 thoughts on “Creative Writing Prompts: Start with a Setting”

  1. Kim McCollum says:


  2. You are so welcome, Kim 🙂

  3. Your settings list is great. It just may become my settings list. 😉 For some reason as I scrolled through, “City Dump” piqued my interest the most. Haha.

  4. I’m glad you find the list helpful, Lauren. You gotta accept inspiration no matter where it takes you, right? 🙂 The settings I seem to choose (or more to the point–that choose me) always end up gritty and less on the “romantic” side of life. Sigh.

  5. Leith Moghli says:

    This is great! really useful!! I often use places that I have been as the starting point. In my latest story I used the tomb raider temple that I visted in Cambodia as the base for the setting in one of the scenes. I started with a picture in my minds eye and my imagination did the rest!! Twitter – @anagranimals

  6. Wow, Leith, that sounds like quite a trip! Once I get a “mind’s eye” scene, I do the same, I’m off to the keyboard (or pen–depending on my mood 🙂

  7. Breanna says:

    hello. I am just beginning to write and I found this website very helpful for my setting. When I finish the book ill put in a note thanking your website.

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