One of the biggest decisions we make as authors when we prepare our next project is the setting. I know, that doesn’t sound like a big decision but believe me, it really is. After all, it’s the backdrop in which your entire story will be written. Choosing the right setting can make or break your story. Unless you’re creating a fantasy or sci-fi setting, you will likely be using real places and place names. Therefore, it’s very important to choose your setting wisely.
For example, say you live in Small Town America and you want to write a book set in Paris, France. If you’ve visited Paris and know it well, then there’s not an issue. But, if you’re like me and have never traveled to Paris, then you might want to think about a few things before choosing that as your setting. After all, knowing your setting is as important as knowing your characters.
For one, if you’re unfamiliar with the location, you can do a lot of research. Google maps helps a lot, but it cannot replace the person on the street feel of actually being there. Research is great, but it will only take you so far. You can describe a place to the last detail as mentioned in travel brochures, Wikipedia articles and Google Street View, but that will never capture the small details. Like the smells as you pass a restaurant or food vendor, the sounds of street musicians and performers, the sounds of traffic or construction, the feeling of being there. Those are things you either just wing it and make them up or you have to speak to someone who’s actually been there.
Second, does the setting actually fit your story? Imagine if you will, taking Harry Potter and removing the Hogwarts setting and trying to place it in downtown Los Angeles. While it might make an interesting change, it would fundamentally shift the way we look at the story. Same characters, same magic, but set in a major American city. I don’t think it would have worked the same. Anyway, what I’m saying is that an old English Castle was a much better setting than say a large urban facility in one of the largest cities in America. The proper setting is fundamental.
Lastly, if you can, go to the setting you want to use and check it out for yourself. If that option isn’t available, you can find all kinds of people on Facebook who are more than willing to share their experiences with you. Those experiences will add a flavor to your setting that a description in a book will never give you. Those precious little details that we take in make all the difference in the setting.
I can tell you all about the rural countryside of the Ozarks. I can close my eyes and smell the hay after the rain, or honeysuckle on the breeze. I can tell you almost every turn of the Niangua River from numerous float trips down it in a canoe. I can describe in detail the sounds of rivers and streams as they play the symphony of nature on their way to larger lakes and rivers.
My point is, I can describe the places I’ve been with complete clarity but I’ve never walked the streets of Bangkok, driven in the traffic of Tokyo or blown warm air into my hands to warm them in the winter outside of the Kremlin in Moscow. However, I can do my research and speak to people who have done those exact things. Getting the human perspective on your settings if far better than a generic description from a travel website. It’s those precious little human elements that bring the setting to life.
Now, granted, I certainly hope that one day I can do all of those things. I’d love to drink vodka with Russian guides as I tour the Winter Palace. I would love to try new foods on the Ginza in Tokyo with people I just met. I want to take the Scotch tour of Scotland and visit the towns and villages where different methods of distillation are done and never exported. I want to ride a horse on the windswept plains of Mongolia and see the world as Genghis Khan once did. But until I do, I’ll continue to research my settings and try to find those little details that bring my settings to life.
After all, the setting is the foundation on which your story rests. Give it the attention it deserves and make it as great as the story that you’re telling. Bring it as much life as you do your characters and plot. Breathe life into it as you weave your tale and immerse your readers in a world of your design. After all, taking our readers to new places and entertaining them with our stories is what it’s all about.
Thank you for listening to my ramblings. I hope it helps or at least entertains you. Food for thought, anyway.