Setting your story, the thoughts of a nobody by Ted Bun
I suppose I should start by defining what I am counting as “setting”.
I interpret the word to mean both the temporal and the geographical location where the story occurs. For example, London during the reign of James Stuart or Space Station Alpha in the Alpha Centauri Sector during the Third Galactic Empire.
Most of my writing is based firmly in the late 20th early 21st Century so I am not going to discuss the temporal, beyond saying that the suggestions for the geographical setting would be my starting point. For more detail consider the suggestions by some of the historical fiction writers.
As Ted Bun, I have put together a series of twelve novellas, some short stories and a couple of other stories set in the rather idyllic “World of Rags to Riches.” A group of places where the characters that link everything together live, love and laugh.
Location, Location, Location. The location of your story is as much a character as any of your protagonists. It needs the same level of understanding, says an absolute pantser who is led around by his characters!
You have two alternatives, you can set your tale a real place, or a fictitious location. Although the World of Rags to Riches is imaginary, I have used real locations in other books. In my reading, I have found that there are pitfalls in both. I try my hardest to avoid crashing headlong into the same traps.
Preparation, not only does it prevent poor performance it can save embarrassing mistakes.
In both real and imaginary places, it is possible to get to bogged down in the detail. You have spent your lifetime living in this place, an age researching carefully, or I created this entire world; you are not going to waste it!
A certain, very successful American crime fiction writer has a tendency to do this.
“I took the Portman Interchange onto the ‘I3’ but the traffic was moving slowly, I cut off at One Street. Taking a left on Second Avenue, a right at the lights onto Broad Street. Then I hung a left and accelerated along the Lake Shore Drive to join the ‘I2’ across town …”
If you live in that real city, I am sure it gives you extra insight as you see the changing street scene. I don’t and the addition of names and directions mean nothing to me. Instead of drawing me, as a reader, into the city, it excluded me. I’d have read more of the series if it hadn’t made me feel like an outsider.
“The traffic was heavy on the Interstate; I took to the rat-runs across town hoping to save time.”
I mainly use fictitious settings for locations. They may or may not resemble real places (Eden Gardens in the Uncovered Policeman is based on a similar establishment in Norfolk.) or be created from scratch. I find that drawing a map helps immensely. Why, because consistency matters.
Day One, the main characters “stroll from the clubhouse across the expansive lawns and through a gate to the swimming pool.” Day Two, “sat in the clubhouse bar when he heard screams from the pool, dashed outside and plunged into the deep end, scooping the lifeless body of the youngster …” Quite a feat of athleticism!
Often locations have to be set in real landscapes. L’Abeille Nue, my fictional resort in the South of France. It is completely imaginary, it exists only a sketch map on my desk. I can, however, take you to the entrance to the field in which it stands.
From this point I know how far it is to the nearest bakery, the Cité of Carcassonne, the beaches of Narbonne and which bridge you can stand on to take a picture of a speeding car on the Autoroute. I have local knowledge of the climate, wildlife and the vegetation. Mossies are not a problem, but tics will be lurking in the long grass so the owners mow pathways for people to walk along.
As the series progressed, I added some beehives and a stream to the site of L’Abeille Nue. They were necessary for developing new stories. It was possible because I had left space on the map for them. Space is important it gives you room to move. Try to avoid painting yourself into a corner with too much detail.
“There are four doors off the hallway, leading to the kitchen, two bedrooms and a TV room.” The detective briefed his team before the raid … So where is the bathroom the criminals use to flush the drugs away?
Then we get to real locations, city streets real people walk down, city streets you need to know because others do.
If you stroll past Selfridges on a regular basis you will have a good idea of how it looks, the direction of the sun, the feel of the crowds and the noise of the traffic. You can set your characters on that street with confidence.
Except you don’t? Will the sun be shining in your heroine’s eyes, dazzling her, at six o’clock?
That will depend on the time of year and the direction of the street. Either you go to the street on the right day and looked into the setting sun or you can get Google Earth to do if for you. You can use Streetview to make sure the buildings don’t get in the way. You can even use Historical Imagery to roll back a hundred years in many places.
That was how I discovered that the romantic sunset proposal scene, set on a rocky, Mediterranean island would not look out across an endless sea. The view is interrupted by another nearby island. On the other hand, you can do immense damage to the credibility of your story by being plain wrong. I read a young adult book in which the heroine chases the villain to a cave in the cliffs of Foulness Island. There are no cliffs on Foulness, during the floods of 1953, there was no Foulness Island. It didn’t have to be Foulness, it could just as easily been an imaginary Scrubshoal Island, problem solved.
My final bete noire is lack of credibility about the setting.
A series of cakes and murders stories I read was set in a Cotswold village of a few dozen houses.
The MC had bought a small cottage in the village after her divorce. Had the author looked at the prices of cottages in these villages? The population supported the Cake Shop-cum-Café (also owned by the MC), a pub and a Police station that needed a Detective Inspector as part of the team. So, the scene of twenty or more mysterious deaths might warrant his posting, it is unlikely to have been possible within the budget! I suggest that in contemporary Britain, so much of this scenario is just not credible. If she had been house-sitting for Aunt Mary (who is away on her travels) while renting a shop in a bustling market town …
You have created your fictional world, drawn maps, sketched views researched the weather and suchlike. You have been to the place, you’ve watched the shadows move, counted crows and timed the traffic lights. “All this information, I must use it!” Not at all.
According to Wikipedia “The Sahara is a desert on the African continent. With an area of 9,200,000 square kilometres, it is the largest hot desert in the world and the third-largest desert overall, smaller only than the deserts of Antarctica and the Arctic.”
Facts, research, if you tell all of that to your readers, you will lose their attention.
On the other hand, if your protagonists describe the scene, you can use it to build their characters, and select the bits that are important to your narrative.
The sand beneath Harry’s feet was burning hot. He screwed up his eyes to scan the shimmering horizon. “There is no reason to think that any of the sand between us and Tazirbu is any different.” He lifted his pack. “Come on Pete we have two hundred kilometres to walk or the Sahara will claim two more victims.”
So, the general rules that guide me.
· Know your setting. If you don’t know it research it.
· If you are creating it leave some space.
· Apply the need-to-know principle, if you readers don’t need to know something, don’t tell them.
· Keep it real (ish!)
· Get your other characters to describe what they are seeing.
Remember, we have only the vaguest impressions of the world immediately outside 221B Baker Street, even though it is one of the most famous locations in fiction! So often less is more.
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