Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Setting Your Story

One of the factors going into anything you write is the setting. You can leave that vague, sometimes, but adding setting details makes the story easier to relate and picture in the reader's head.

Photo of Asheville, NC, taken by Zulske and posted on Wikipedia
The question is, then, whether to use a place that really exists, or to make one up wholesale. There are advantages to both, and it mostly gets down to whether you want to do world-building or research. 

When you set a story in a real-life city, you have to use existing structures, existing roads, existing local hot spots. Use a popular club by name, and you risk finding out that's the place that has "Elvis night" every Saturday and gives free cover to anyone dressed as the King. Give your protagonist an apartment building with quick public transportation access, and you might learn that bus stop was discontinued in 1996. I grew up on Cape Cod, and I have yet to read a book that depicts the Cape I know and escaped a decade ago.

Done well, though, a writer can make people feel like a tourist in their favorite city. Integrating local flavor will make those who know your city smile, and feel like they're a part of the book. Some of the books I've read that use their settings to good effect are Rosemary and Rue and the rest of the Toby Daye books by Seanan McGuire (San Francisco), Spiral Hunt and the other Evie Scelan books by Margaret Ronald (Boston), and A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin (London).

If you decide to use a real city, even if you've lived there, you need to research it. There are bound to be side streets you haven't explored, nooks and crannies or unsavory sections of town you've never wandered into. There's going to come a time when your protagonist has to duck into a store on a street you've never visited, and you need to find out what kind of store your character finds there.

When you make up a whole new place, on the other hand, you don't have those problems. You get a whole other set of problems, in that your town or city or mushroom-infested cow pasture has to be logical and believable and feel like a real thing. Just as your characters must be believable, so, too, must your setting feel like it grew and shaped and evolved to become what it is. That doesn't mean that your first chapter should contain your fictional town's entire history, any more than you should dump your character's personal history on your readers' heads in the first few chapters. Let any fun things you've made up come out in the narrative, or not at all.

Making up a place from scratch does mean that no one is going to automatically feel connected to it. It's going to feel generic, maybe even like a blank wallpaper. You'll have to use even more details than you would in a setting that already exists, just to make it seem real.

The book I'm currently working on is set in a fictional town, whereas the trilogy I'm working on is set in Boston. The trilogy needed that grounding in reality, because I toss in several improbable elements. The ghost story, on the other hand, runs the risk of calling attention to a place that isn't mine. The house I'm writing about is a house I actually lived in, but it doesn't belong to me. It wouldn't be very nice of me to call attention to that real place and reveal how to find it. What if someone takes the story seriously and goes to the house to do some amateur ghost hunting? It's not much of a risk, but it is a risk, and I'd rather not take it.

What I will take, though, is my own advice. While I am basing a lot of my ghost story on the actual town I lived in at the time, and I'm placing it, geographically, very near another town, I'm also adding a lot of details which exist in neither location. In my rewrite, I'll be sure to add sensory details, as well, to add a level of reality to the setting.

It's a lot of work to create something that feels as real as what already exists, but, hopefully, it'll be worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment