Celebrating East African Writing!

What is in a Setting?

Setting is the psychological time or place in a story. Setting plays an important role in the success of stories.

Although his fingers were quite numb...

Although his fingers were quite numb...

In one of my favourite’s To Build a Fire by Jack London the story takes place on a trail in the Yukon. This setting is vital to the story because nature, the cold and the snow become the main character’s worst enemy. Nature is flatly indifferent to mankind’s survival. The cold will not change because of man nor does it care about human existence. The temperature in this story is set at a frigid seventy-five degrees below zero.

The main character is a man who is walking a trail by himself trying to make it to a camp where other men are staying. He was warned not to go out into the cold, especially alone, if it is fifty degrees below zero or more. The man is ignorant to reality. His only companion is a dog who is almost smarter than the man. The dog knows what he must do to survive and is the only one who succeeds. The man has to build a fire in order to dry his boot that had gotten wet. The last fire that the man builds is what kills him. The fire is put out by snow that has fallen down from a pine tree branch. The man freezes to death. He dies with dignity.

Setting is very important to this story, without it, the reader would not learn of the common ignorant human behaviour when it comes to survival in an indifferent environment. The setting of this story does not regard the man as important and is unconcerned with his suffering and death. Mankind can not control nature and our survival in it. We can heed warnings though and not chance our survival in horrible natural weather conditions.

Now let’s turn our attention to the Contemporary Nairobi setting.

What are the characteristics of the Nairobi City; climate, flora, fauna, landmark buildings, transport system, social scenes, behaviour characteristic of and dependent on the characteristics of the city? How do these aspects affect your story, your characters’ choices, the turn of the story?

Here’s the sketch of my Contemporary Nairobi story.

I am an editor, who lives on the outskirts of Nairobi, and work in the heart of the City. I have to commute to work everyday, 2 hours from my home town, a distance that would be covered in 37 minutes but which takes 2 hours because of the crazy morning traffic.

I leave my house early to get to the office on time. I get home late because the job demands a lot of me. My life is restricted to the office, and the buses. I don’t have a life outside of this.

Soon, I begin to recognise my early morning, late evening fellow passengers. I don’t know their names. But I know what they read, I can recognise their phones because I see them pull the gadgets out either to take calls or to listen to music.

I know that the guy who wears the black jacket everyday is in law-enforcement. He gets off at the stop near the CID headquarters. The cute-as-a-button petite girl who sleeps all the way to her stop is a medical student. I woke her up just yesterday when her stop came up and she was still asleep. The Lady with the dreadlocks works at the art centre. I was not sure if she was an artist, but I am beginning to think she is a graphic designer. The old guy who has a walking stick own a cyber cafe. I overheard a conversation he had with someone who is not a regular on the route. He used to work as a clerk in the ministry of information. Used the retirement ‘golden handshake’ to start a business with his daughter. His son is a little too shifty.

One day, I notice that the guy who wears the black jacket, and the old man with the walking stick are not on the bus. This continues for a week. I want to find out what happened to them.

  1. The wider setting is Contemporary Nairobi, but the immediate setting is the bus. How does this affect how I tell this story?
  2. What extraordinary thing can happen in the bus to make me actually take the time and give the effort to find out what happens to the the two passengers?
  3. How much can my investigation possibly take place within the confines of the bus?

Think about it. Maybe even complete this story if you wish to.  But think about your story in these terms, too.

As previously announced, over the next few weeks, every author who wins the Story of the Week, will have the opportunity to have their work in expedited review at the Storymoja Editorial Review Table. To win that spot, please send in a story that fits into the categories below.

–         Contemporary Nairobi setting

–         Has two or more young professionals as main characters

–         Can be either Crime/Detective Fiction, Romance or Life Crisis Fiction

–         Must be complete enough to stand as a story by itself

–         Has a running mystery; story must be short but the mystery should make it possible to develop the story into a novella (10000 words)

–         Should not be more than 2000 words

In addition to the expedited review, the author will have a Writer Profile on our site, as well as stand a chance to win KES 500 and one of the Storymoja titles.

Please send in your work to, and make sure that you mark clearly in the Subject line Contemporary Nairobi for Blog. Your emails will be filtered, so if you do not mark the subject line clearly, your mail may be misdirected or deleted.

Please make sure that you send in your story by the Friday before the week when you would like your story to be published.

For now, let’s see this week’s Contemporary Nairobi stories. It’s up to you to judge how well the stories are crafted, and how well the Nairobi setting is used and builds upon the story. Please make comments as well as vote on the story.

We begin with Twahira Abdallah’s My Child is Kenyan: When I said I was going to raise my children not to be tribalists, all my family members supported me, as did my in-laws. They all said it was a noble cause. And how was I going to do it?

Then we move on to Sahir Saddiq’s Kalekye: Hakuna maziwa,’ there is no milk, she told the Askari guard, when he asked for tea. ‘Hakuna stima,’ there is no electricity she told him when he asked if he could charge his cell-phone inside.

Alex Mutua gives us Presidential Pardon: When they walked through the Mabati door of Makuti Bar they were almost naked, they stupefied the security guards, and went through uncensored. If they would be suicide bomb…

Lastly we have a continuation of Clifford C. Oluoch’s Destiny: A man wearing shades forced his way to the front to join Serah who moved more towards the driver. The driver took one look at the man and immediately recognized him.

Here’s wishing you all a happy reading and an excellent week!



This entry was posted on June 7, 2010 by in Writing.
%d bloggers like this: