Setting Mood and Tone Across Time in our Nonfiction

How to use mood and tone to enhance setting in nonfiction


The picture on my computer this morning was the ultimate “then and now” photo to show how mood and tone can be used while writing setting in nonfiction. I’m honestly not sure where the picture came from—Windows or Dell? As you probably know, a new picture appears on the computer every couple of days. Sometimes, they give the location, sometimes not. This morning they did not, and I couldn’t find it in the millions and millions of online stock photos. Oh well, the two pictures below will have to do. This is the skeletal structure of setting. Some of the setting you can see, but the rest hides behind closed doors and windows.

That was then. Setting of ghost town
That was then…
This is Now. Modern street.
This is now.

Pretend like these pictures are of the same town, separated by two hundred years. In the bottom picture, shops and businesses have been remodeled in beautiful colors, vibrant with life. Above, the town stands in stark contrast, dull, empty, and forgotten. What happened that caused such a drastic change?

I kind of like the old, damaged image—the lost in time, ghostly feel. The setting speaks of a time gone by, making me wonder who lived in this town, what their daily lives were like, what they cared about? Were they happy or unfulfilled? In my head I hear the soft twang of a mandolin and the creak of shoes on hard wooden floors. Life was slower then. A dollar bought a weeks groceries, and homemade bread was served at every meal. I could go on and on but then I won’t get to my point, let alone finish the blog. But here is a link for a ghost town slide show if you’re nostalgic like me.

Setting Through Time

Gazing at the new and improved town, my nostalgic thoughts disappear. The setting of lights and colors make me smile, and I appreciated the visually stunning update. While I’m sure the people behind those doors are happy, their personal joys and struggles are lost on me. When I glance back to the top picture, my imagination fires to life again because I feel something. I only have one complaint–people did not live under a sepia toned filter!

I’ve spent the last week detailing a section in our Sky Monsters book that covers aspects of colonial America, the Industrial Age, and the Cold War era all in a specific location along the Ohio River. The over-arching goal of the hard-working people doesn’t change much–a desire to live well and be happy. But the definition of “living well” shifts with the times. For context and depth, I acquire setting details by stepping into the shoes of the locals and studying the evolution of change they experience between then and now.

Setting Mood and Tone

To repeat, setting is more than the physical description of a place. It also requires mood (aura) and tone (attitude, character). We find these by observing/studying the actions and reactions of the people who lived in the community.

Then loud muskets blasted through the forest, drowning the sounds of hand-to-hand combat as soldiers and Native Americans battled along the river for claims on the land. Into this unsettled area, families migrated, braving rapids, wildlife, and danger.

Years later, industry moved to town, building massive ships for the military, providing jobs for everyone. The economy and town boomed. Families prospered. Until the plants closed and industry moved on. Jobs left, people left. Now, only a few active storefronts stand out against the dark and empty caverns of what once was….

Strange things begin to happen—lights in the sky, flying demons, strange people. Is it the government? They’re keeping plenty of secrets. Or is it something else?

dark alley, using mood and tone in setting

Good writing gives the text enough color so readers experience the mood and tone of the times, but it leaves enough mystery for them to fill in the gaps. If the writer paints every detail, the prose may look beautiful and bring a smile, but it won’t leave room for the imagination. What fun is that?

How about you? Do you prefer more description and detail or just enough to set the tone?
Do you like ghost towns? Have you been to one?

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