Helen Haukeness in her article Setting Your Novel Straight, defines setting simply as "a backdrop against which your characters perform."
But, in reality, setting is a little more complicated than that. Mostly it's because of the problems that you may encounter with setting. We'll discuss those and with the help of some experts, the solutions.
According to Noah Lukeman in the First Five Pages, "setting itself becomes a character, interacting with the other characters."
As writers, we must understand that setting is a living entity of its own within our story. It changes, plies us with senses, and evokes mood. But, for an agent or editor looking at your manuscript, there are mistakes you can make with setting that will cause them to reject your story.
You must have setting in your story. If you don't that's your first problem. Some writers start their story with no hint of place or time leaving the reader in the dark as to where or when the story is set.
Then the opposite is also true. Some writers spend so much time opening their first scene with a description of setting that they've bored the reader and slowed the pace so much that the reader has given up on ever getting through your story. According to Noah Lukeman, "If you have a tendency to describe the setting all at once, try stretching it out over the course of several pages -- readers can't take in all that information at once anyway, and a setting will become more real if it unfolds slowly..."
According to Janet Evanovich, in How I Write, her opinion is to "Provide the setting and atmosphere information as close to the beginning of the book. This gives your reader a sense of where the characters live and work."
Judiciously, writers. Judiciously.
Helen Haukeness describes some frequently encountered problems with setting and identifies the solutions. I'll highlight the most obvious ones.
First of all, she indicates that writers fail to understand the depth of a setting. Ms Haukeness states that "A story's setting comprises more than buildings and roads and flora and mountains in the background. Setting involves an entire environment: furniture, weather, people, tools, toys, clutter, lighting, odors. In a word, details."
This is the biggest misconception I encounter with writers; involving all the senses and surroundings in setting their story. It's the easiest one to overlook because all the focus is on the characters. That is why in most beginner writers' stories, we see the "talking heads". This is where dialogue is composed of just two characters talking with no action, setting, emotion, or senses.
Second, Ms Haukeness discusses how writers fail to change settings. Changing settings is just like changing emotions within a character and adding and subtracting conflict within your story. Noah Lukeman tells us it's a great mistake to limit settings "because limiting settings often ends up adversely affecting stories and characters, hindering them from branching out, doing what they would if they had the space."
What all three of our experts can agree on, is this. Our characters must interact with the story's setting. It can be something as simple as the teacher writing on the chalkboard. The executive sitting at his/her desk fiddling with the computer mouse. Or the stableboy rubbing saddlesoap into his mistress' favorite saddle. Whatever. Get your characters involved.
Don't wait for your readers to ask, "Where am I?"