I am excited that the multilingual author Joanna K. Radosz has agreed to share her thoughts on the setting in novels with me today. Thank you for your time and advice, Joanna. Over to you.
I feel delighted that I am not the only author who decided to share their thoughts on the matter of setting a story. Reading the post by Ted Bun, I found out that as much as we share a view on the topic, I can provide some new insight on it – so here I am, taking the chance.
What’s so difficult about setting the story
The first thing you should know is that I am multilingual, hence: multicultural writer (mainly Polish, but writing also in English as well as Russian) and that cultural differences are something I pay much attention to. I consider the cultural part another aspect of the setting, besides the temporal and geographical ones, already mentioned by Ted. That makes the matter even more dimensional than ever (can we make the culture the fifth dimension, pretty please?).
Reading through the published books as well as the net-literature in a bunch of languages (because the problem cannot be brought down to just one culture or one language), I noticed the trend to set the novel anywhere but in your homeland. It's especially clear as far as the Polish authors are concerned. Although we have varied, rich in culture land with mountains and the sea, small villages and noisy cities, many authors are eager to look for the setting elsewhere.
That's nothing wrong with it. I mean, as long as the writer knows what they're writing about.
The problem is: far too often they don't.
Schools in the Moon and on Wattpad
I don't want to repeat what Ted had already said, so first I recommend you read his post – if you haven't done it yet – and then get back to my text for the bigger picture.
I think any of us, writers, can identify several troubles some of our colleagues have when it comes to setting. Yet, we can assign them all to one big trouble, which is called: the lack of proper research. However, by research I mean both researching the specific setting and researching the rules of making a setting in general. The problems with it can manifest themselves as bringing the geographical background down to a bunch of street names (I really love the example Ted quoted in his post). They can be the lack of knowledge on how the setting should work – not only as a background for the story but also as another character (and sometimes the main one: see Moscow in crime fiction series by Boris Akunin). Finally, it can be a problem with cultural distance and not noticing the differences between cultures. The last one has been seen in so many Polish net-novels that it got the nickname: “a Japanese school in the Moon” or “set on Wattpad, which is nowhere”. We use the terms to indicate the situation when an author sets their story elsewhere and still, unwarily and carelessly, copies some thought schemes or behaviours from their native culture.
But how to make it right?
Feel it yourself!
First of all, feel the atmosphere of your setting. Whenever it is an actual place or the imaginary one, it ought to have its very own vibe. The easiest way is to connect the setting with the mood of the scene or the personality of your character. They can be either compatible or opposed, depending on the effect you want to evoke. Is it a funeral scene? Then it feels the most "right" to make it rain and turn all the colours to grey. But is it the most interesting choice? Maybe you should rather think about the sunny, forest background which would make your character feel almost on holidays... obviously, as long as they don't recall what's the moment about.
By feeling the atmosphere, I mean also imagining the place and putting yourself there. Don't settle for the visual aspect of it. Close your eyes, turn on the other senses. What do you hear? What can you smell? Try to imagine yourself touching the nearest surface. What does it feel like? When you manage to engage all the readers' senses, you'll get them!
I remember the moment I was writing my short story, “A Distant Rumble of the World We Knew”. Ashamed as I am to say it, I must admit: I've never been to Scotland. But I talked to Scottish people, researched the places I wanted to put in my story and then tried to evoke in my memory something parallel to some scenes I needed to write. Okay, what do we have here? A girl and her dog lost in the woods, on their own, feeling the cold spring breeze? Hey, I've been in this before! I know what my MC could feel in such a situation. I recall the chill air and the sound of dry twigs under my dog's paws...
Not every place you write about will be specific. Not every one of them even should be. A part of the fun for the reader is the ability to identify themselves with the characters – so in some situations the more general, the better.
Do your research. Honestly!
Nevertheless, research is the king. Research is paramount. You can research a place by visiting it, by googling photos of it, reading about it on Wikipedia, and making virtual tours around it on Google Earth. You can talk about it with the inhabitants. The method isn't half as important as the result: and the result is to create a believable place. When using actual locations, you must remember that the stories serve not only to entertain but also to teach. Your readers, often with no possibility to go to the place you set your story in, believe that it looks like how you describe it. A writer should never disappoint or deceive their readers.
In order to make the place real, you can do anything you come up with. For example, when I was writing my debut novel, I set it in the Russian city of Tolyatti, which I'd never been to. I know Russia; I had a friend in Tolyatti so it seemed not a problem... until it came to describing the MC's apartment. I wanted to keep it as real as possible – including the actual layout of the apartment in the block in that particular street. But how to do it? How to find people living in the street and ask them to describe their apartment's layout? And isn't it, generally speaking, rude?
And then there came that EUREKA moment, one in a million. Where can you find the apartment layout plus the actual pictures of the location? Where is it available for anyone? Sure, you have probably already guessed it: the real estate advertisements. And yes, I used them to find a place to live for ALL my characters.
Of course, you don't need to be THAT specific. You don't even have to name the streets. The general atmosphere is way more important for the reader. Nevertheless, topographic research is quite important – not to put all the information out in the novel, but for you to know that you probably just proposed your character to walk from one side of, say, London, to another in ten minutes. Or you supposed that Main Station in any city is in its centre so the character walks out from the train in my hometown of Toruń, Poland, and goes straight to the old town. Let me disappoint you: the Main Station in Toruń is placed on the other side of Vistula river than the old town...
Put in the detail and make it real
Finally, remember what I’ve said at the very beginning of my post: the proper setting is also about the culture. When writing about a specific culture (or subculture), other than yours, do as much as you can to get to know it better. Not only in order not to make stupid or even offensive mistakes. Sometimes your research can bring you a plot or a character idea. Pay attention to the details. Did you know that although in Barcelona the traffic lights are almost everywhere, including inner alleys in the estates, virtually no one, except tourists, cares about them? Or maybe you noticed the difference in the behaviour of various nations when they see a lost tourist with a map in the middle of the street? Russians are eager to help. You don't even need to have a map – it's enough that you look lost or sad and almost immediately there appears a person who will do anything to cheer you up. You're in Stockholm? Forget about it. People there mind their own businesses and consider it rude, intervening in other people's lives. You need help? Ask and they'll probably help. But don't expect them to guess.
Surely, that doesn't cover all the topic. I focused mostly on the real-place setting, since that's the way I write myself. So if you want to set your story in the place already existing, let me summarize my advice for you:
– do your research;
– don't put all your research in the novel but bear it in mind – you never know when it comes in handy;
– feel the atmosphere you want to create;
– feel it with all your senses;
– pay attention to details;
– take the culture of the place into account;
– have fun and never stop exploring. That's the best thing about being a writer!
Joanna Krystyna Radosz is a multilingual writer, translator and literary researcher, based in Poland. She has already published three short story collections and one novel, all in Polish, and her another novel, this time in Russian, is about to be published. Her English debut is the short story “A Distant Rumble of the World We Knew” in the “Dark Scotland” anthology. She writes on sports, culture and people in general – and does her best to make sports fiction in Poland great (unfortunately, not “again”). Restlessly searching for inspirations and knowledge, she finished the writing courses by Neil Gaiman and Elena Lenkovskaya, and is about to start her very own one, based on the mix of writing practice and the theory of literature (especially cultural poetics). In the meantime, she's finishing her PhD in Russian language in literature.
Joanna's social media (mostly in Polish but you can always write to her in English):
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