One of the things you learn in any fiction writing class is the importance of setting–a reader needs to be able to “see” where you’ve located your story. Sometimes writers can focus on the plot and the characters to the exclusion of setting. Sometimes setting can be just as important as memorable characters or a finely detailed plot.
When your work is a novel, unless it stays in one place for the length of it–like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express–you have to do some research if you’ve never been there. That’s a key component of the writing, because a reader might have been there and can spot the errors.
When John Updike got the idea for The Witches of Eastwick he had the perfect small town in mind–Wickford, RI. However, when he went to the town to research and people got wind of the plot–three witches in the 1970’s who take petty, and not so petty, revenge on neighbors–they threatened law suits if he used the name of the town. Updike let them think they won. The book’s title is The Witches of Eastwick, but if you read the description of Eastwick in the first few pages you recognize Wickford right away. And it was the perfect setting for this quirky novel about the devil coming to earth. (What would have been the difference had the Wickfordians not been such typical New England prigs? Maybe it would have been a tourist destination–it’s a quintessential New England town–instead of a town you drive through to get to the Newport beaches.)
I grew up in a rural area near a small town, so those are settings I’m comfortable with. I can tell from a story if someone has only seen a picture of a farm or gone to one. I spent a lot of my life in a large urban area and worked in the Nation’s Capital for the most part. I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City, so I get the urban setting and am also comfortable setting a story in busy cities. I also like the juxtaposition of city and country–it’s something that’s never quite been overcome by urbanization.
I’ve done some world travel–a modest amount–to England, Scotland, and other places in Europe. I can insert any place I’ve visited in a story with ease. Some of my work is based in Eastern Europe, and that’s an issue. I’ve never been there, and, frankly, unless you’re a high-paid, commercial novelist, extensive travel to research your settings can be beyond the budget.
Atlases can give you maps and facts and figures–all good, of course–but Google Earth can put you there. Its “Street Views” options can put you in the city or town or countryside you want to write about. It’s still not as good as being there, but it can give you a starting point. The next point is finding someone familiar with the area to give you the personal touch or cultural memes for a setting. I had a friend who had traveled extensively with USAID, and he was always able to give me a good read-over for settings.
Some writers overcome the setting issues by creating completely fictional ones. Whether in fantasy, other genre, or literary fiction, that can eliminate any setting errors or hard feelings from the locals. For his collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang created Rugglesville, VA. For her first book of linked short stories, Thrown Out, and an upcoming series of novels, Jennie Coughlin created Exeter, MA. Both constructs are real; you can “see” yourself in either place. They feel real. Even in fantasy or science fiction, if you create your own world, people still have to be able to “walk” through it. It’s not enough to say “we’re on a spaceship” or “we’re in a fairy land.” The writer has to give the setting depth.
Which do you prefer–setting your work in known locales, or do you create your own world?