I’m reviewing these two books in a single entry because they are really two pieces of the same tool.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ackerman and Puglisi have published an entire series of books designed to help authors create unique details. Some focus on character building, others on world building. The Urban and Rural Setting Thesauruses focus on the latter.
The main part of these books is the actual thesaurus, which lists places an author is likely to write about. Under each listing, they have included descriptive details you are likely to find in each location arranged by sense: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and sensations. They also list people commonly found in that environment and possible sources of conflict, as well as a written example of the setting. Obviously, the lists can’t be exhaustive, but they are an excellent jumping off point for authors. It’s hugely useful to get a full-sensory description of a place your character goes when it’s not a location you personally frequent, and these details can prove the difference between a flat setting and a vivid one.
The first section of each of these books also contains about 30 pages of useful, engaging articles designed to help authors use their setting descriptions to the fullest. The Rural Setting Thesaurus includes: “Crafting Settings That Create Emotional Connections,” The Setting as a Vehicle for Establishing Mood,” The Setting as a Vehicle for Conflict,” “The Setting as a Vehicle for Steering the Story,” “Figurative Language: The Key to Enhancing Your Setting”, “Common Setting Snags,” and “Rural Setting Considerations.” In the Urban Setting Thesaurus, you will find: “The Giant Misconception: Who Cares About the Setting?” “The Setting as a Vehicle for Characterization,” “Setting Matters: The Importance of Where,” “The Setting as a Vehicle for Delivering Backstory,” “The Crown Jewel of Settings: Sensory Details,” “Urban World Building” The Pros and Cons of Choosing a Real-Life Location,” “Common Setting Snags,” and “Other Urban Setting Considerations.” As you can see, the authors split the articles so they didn’t overlap, so if you want the full spectrum of information you’ll need to get both books.
These are not the kind of books most people would read cover to cover. They are more designed to sit on your shelf as a reference, and when you hit a snag in your writing or find a description that is falling flat, you can pull these out to give you a creative kick in the pants. The variety of entries in both books is impressive, and while you may not be able to find the exact setting you are trying to get across, you will doubtless be able to find something close. Again, these books are tools to get your own writing on track, not to write your scenes for you. Be selective in what you take from each entry. Don’t try to include all the details, and don’t always use the same details for the same types of places. The goal is to make each scene fresh and unique, and these books can help with that if you use them well.