Improving Your Story’s Setting with a Floor Plan

Posted by on Nov 22, 2017 in A Writer's Life, How to write, research | 0 comments

Chances are, at some point in your story, your characters will spend some time in a building, and that means you need a map of that building, aka, a floor plan.

Why Do I Need a Floor Plan?

There are three main reasons why you should draw out your floor plans and not just keep them in your head: consistency, realism, and efficiency.

1. Consistency: don’t get lost in your own setting.

Have you ever written something like this? “She woke up with the dawn’s light filling her bedroom” and then a few pages later: “From her bed she watched the sun set, then turned her face to the pillow and wept.” And it’s only much later that you realize, “Oh drat.” Because unless that bedroom runs the entire width of the house and has windows that look both east and west–something like the sketch below–you’ve made a serious boo-boo.

In the same vein, you can’t have the heroine run up the stairs and turn right to get to her room in one scene, and then later have the hero turn left at the top of the stairs before pounding on her door. Your readers (especially those who really care about your work) will catch you in such a mistake. The best way to stop that from happening is to have a floor plan to refer to when you’re writing.

2. Realism: providing a sense of depth and detail.

If you don’t know where rooms and furniture are in your building–doorways, windows, beds, desks, clocks, mirrors–how can you describe those things to your readers? I got lazy in my last novel, and tried to get away with the most basic of descriptions for Rob’s house in Laramie, and one of my beta readers called me out on it. She said it was like the story went from a full-color movie to an old black and white one, and the story lost a lot of its depth. Once I got a solid floor plan made, I was able to add in a lot more description, which in turn made the story more “real.”

3. Efficiency: make your writing easier.

Finally, having a floor plan sketched out actually makes it easier to write, because you know immediately how and where your characters can move within a scene. No having to sit there and ponder what comes next. You already know that the minute your heroine storms in the front door of her small apartment, she’s going to see the messy kitchen she left that morning. You already know that the hero can see her throwing dishes about angrily, because you know that the kitchen window looks out into the alley below, where he’s stationed himself to guard her.

And to underscore how much easier it is to lay out a scene with a floor plan, I came up with all that in less than five minutes just by thinking of the typical layout of an Ikea-type apartment.

How Do I Develop a Realistic Floor Plan?

That depends greatly on what kind of fiction you write.

Since I write historical fantasy, I try to base mine on real houses of the time period I’m writing. There are hundreds of books out there on historical homes, focusing on everything from the rich and powerful to everyday folk. However, here are a few slightly obscure resources I’ve found extraordinarily useful.

Insurance Maps.

Insurance maps are an amazing source of information (thank you, Erik Larson! It was in reading your end notes that I discovered such a thing even existed).  The Library of Congress and the University of Texas at Austin both have huge collections of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps available online, and links to numerous other universities with similar map collections.

For the story I’m currently working on, I was able to find a house that actually existed in 1900 that suited my needs exactly. Here it is, at the corner of 24th and Avenue O, in Galveston, Texas.

 

The floor plan given isn’t very detailed, but it shows how many stories the house has, where the doors, porches, and windows are, and gives a rough idea of how big the house is. From there, I added a few more necessary details (see below for the finished plan).

Government Records.

While researching Fort Sanders for A Great Wide Nowhere, I discovered that Google Books has scanned in dozens of annual reports from the US Army to Congress, and buried within those reports are detailed descriptions of each fort and the buildings on post, and often include sketches. The other thing to remember about forts is that they tended to be built on the same basic pattern from fort to fort, so the layout of the officers’ quarters at Ft. Sanders would likely be quite similar to those at Ft. Ellis and Ft. Laramie. The only thing to watch out for is what year the annual report comes from: the layout of Ft. Sanders changed dramatically from 1867 to 1882, so I had to go looking for the earliest report I could find to make sure I had the right types of houses.

House Plan Magazines.

Not the best of sources for historically accurate houses, but if you can find one like this, it’ll do in a pinch.

I happened to find my copy at a book sale somewhere, and while the houses shown have been modernized, there’s enough background information given to make a decently accurate floor plan. If you do choose to use a modern reproduction of an old house, keep in mind that older homes were, for the most part, much smaller than our current 2000-3000 sf houses.

 

 

How Detailed Should My Floor Plan Be?

The answer is, how much time will you be spending in that particular house/building?

For a place the characters spend little time in, or where the setting isn’t terribly important, the basics will suffice–which room is which, where the doors and windows are, stairs, etc. This is the sketch I did based on the Galveston house mentioned above:

Since it’s only a novelette, and the characters have scenes in just a few rooms of the house, I kept the design rather simple. I didn’t bother with the downstairs rooms, other than to note where the stairs were. I also didn’t place any furniture other that which is mentioned in the story (the two beds and the washstand/mirror).

However, if your characters will be spending a great deal of time in a particular place, you’ll likely want to draw in other furniture as well. Beds, desks, fireplaces, washstands, armoires/cupboards/wardrobes (remember, old houses usually didn’t have closets)–knowing where such things are can be greatly helpful.

In conclusion, let me show you an example from my books.

The Black family home in Gettysburg is a setting I’ve used repeatedly, so I have developed a very detailed set of floor plans for it. I know that if you sit on the window seat in Sandy’s room (which used to be Caro’s sewing nook) you can see across the hallway into the room shared by the twins and Ellis (which is how Jon knew that Ellis had been forced to sleep on the floor by his older brother). I also know that Sandy’s bed and Kat’s bed are right across the wall from each other, so Sandy could easily hear his sister crying in her sleep. This is what the top floor of the house looked like Christmas of 1884.

(You can peruse the rest of my Black Forest floor plans, from 1863-1885, here)

 

Have you found other sources for realistic floor plans? Share them below!

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