Some wise thoughts on setting
Our much-published writer shows you how to make your story's place—whether real or made-up—believable
Published: June 22, 2010
|One of the first things to decide about the setting of your story is whether to use a real or fictional place. I hope the following suggestions will help.|
If time and budget permit, go there. If I’m setting my story in a real place, I try to go there. I’ve gone mushing in Alaska and snorkeling in Hawaii. Last year, I climbed the Great Wall of China. I’ve also traveled to England, France, Japan, Bermuda, Sicily, and half the states. On my journeys, I take photographs and make notes. I also interview police officers, newspaper reporters, museum curators and other experts.
Wherever I go, I use local transportation. To Touch the Moon (one of my Rosalind Carson romance novels) was set in Japan. On page 148, Sabrina and Clay travel on the Shinkansen—the bullet train—from Tokyo to Kyoto. My guidebook said: Refreshments are served. But when I rode the train, I discovered that sweet-faced young women regularly parade the aisles with handcarts, chanting in voices like wind chimes: “Cannedu juice, cannedu beer, sandwich?” Those details seemed much more interesting to me than merely reporting, “Refreshments were served.”
When possible, I walk the streets and alleys, smelling the smells, listening to the sounds, exploring the shops and museums. I don’t eat in fancy hotels, but in small eateries, sampling the local yakitori, panini, chowder. The things I see and hear and smell and taste form the fabric of my stories.
Find the story. Sometimes I visit a new place without a story in mind. I just go somewhere new, or learn some new activity, and there’s usually a story waiting there. I used this method when I wanted to go to Bermuda.
Bermuda’s moongates—circular archways formed of slabs of limestone—are popular with young couples. It is said that walking under one guarantees a long, happy life. What better symbol for a romance novel! I used it in another Rosalind Carson novel, The Moon Gate. After I’d spent a couple of weeks walking around, seeing the sights, talking to people, learning the history of Bermuda, the story practically wrote itself.
One day, I went out on a glass-bottomed boat and saw a diver in a wet suit suddenly appear among the fish, sea fans and anemones. This gave me an idea for my second novel set in Bermuda, the mystery Shadow of a Doubt.
Years ago, I arrived in old Quebec City just in time for the loudest outdoor rock concert I’ve ever heard. So that’s how This Dark Enchantment begins.
I prefer to go there even if it’s a fictional place. I usually base a fictional place on a real place. In my Charlie Plato mystery series, I called the setting Bellamy Park, but it was loosely based on Menlo Park, Calif. I visited Menlo Park several times and used the climate, the flora and fauna, the rush hour. I even marked up a Menlo Park map, giving the streets new names.
I based much of Chaps, the country-western nightclub in my Charlie Plato series, on The Saddle Rack in San Jose, Calif., where I’d line-danced. Chaps’ layout was much like that of an inn in my hometown I knew well, so I could easily move my characters around.
If you can’t go. Obviously, it is not always possible to take the time or spend the money to travel the world in search of accuracy. In that case, guidebooks and maps can help fill in details. The Internet lets you travel anywhere on earth and find all kinds of information. For example, a minute ago I went to Google and put “San Mateo, Calif.,” into the search box. A wealth of information popped up. Check more than one reference for accuracy.
Go there if it’s not too far away. If you’re using
nearby towns as a setting, it’s best to go there even if you know them
well. I thought I knew Seattle fairly well, but when I walked it before
plotting More Than You Know, a suspense story featuring an FBI agent, I found useful areas I’d never explored.
knew Pike Place Market, for example, but this time I looked hard at
everything instead of just shopping. I also timed my walk so I’d know
how long it would take my FBI agent to interview various stall owners.
I even checked out the men’s room—while my husband stood guard—just as
Maddy does in the story when her husband disappears. I had lunch at the
rotating restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle, timing each change of
scenery, so that later I could match the changes to the timing of
Maddy’s conversation with the agent.
Go there even if you live there.
For 20 years I’ve lived in a resort town on the Washington coast. I’ve
set only one book here, in fictional Murre Bay, but the scenery,
weather, lifestyle and wildlife were those of my real town. I went out
and looked at everything with the eyes of a writer, rather than a
When I wrote on page 273 that Adrian saw someone on
the jetty through his binoculars, I set out with binoculars to make
sure someone could be seen on the jetty from that part of the beach. I
saw a young man camping in a bedraggled tent, which gave me an idea for
a character. I rode our local bus, not only to see parks and shops from
a different angle, but to people-watch, which helps any kind of
writing. A pair of adult male twins were on the bus—and my romance
novel Double Take was born.
Setting isn’t always a place. A
story can play out on a cruise ship, a plane, even a tall ship. The
Lady Washington, a replica of the 18th-century sailing ship Capt.
Robert Gray, plies my local waters. Now there’s a setting that begs for
a story—a contemporary one, perhaps, dealing with the wonderful young
people who work on board, or a historical tale with pirates. I’ve even
considered writing a time-travel story set aboard the vessel—a storm, a
lightning strike, and we’re back in the 18th century.
Make the setting come alive. Few readers will endure long passages of description. Show setting within scenes of action. From More Than You Know:
Maddy hesitated, Nick took her shopping bags from her and they started
along the sidewalk opposite the market, dodging a couple of in-line
skaters, a fiddle-playing itinerant entertainer doing a fair job of the
Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and a tall thin clown, who was
directing a radio-controlled toy car in and out of the various stores.
The smell of freshly baked bread wafted out at them ...
details are vital. Use your eyes, ears, nose, sense of touch, and taste
to create a mood as well as a picture. From a scene in Shadow of a Doubt:
shaped stalagmites thrust upward through the water and from shelf-like
formations in the limestone walls. The air smelled overused, as though
it had been inhaled and exhaled by too many people. Water dripped
constantly. Jamie shivered in her shorts and cotton shirt as she looked
up at stalactite “daggers” aimed straight at her head.
I was trying for an atmosphere of foreboding in that paragraph. Soon after, Jamie discovered a dead body.
Why use a real setting? Many
readers love to combine armchair travel with fiction reading. They also
like to read about places they’ve lived in or visited. A novel that is
set in a place that actually exists has an automatic authenticity.
Why use a fictional setting? If
you’re unsure of the facts of a real place and you can’t go there, it’s
possible to use what you do know of the place by giving it another
name. If you’re writing a mystery, it’s often best to change the name
of a small town. For example, if I’m going to have the mayor turn out
to be a serial killer, it’s probably not a good idea to use the actual
name of the town.
There’s also the matter of timing. If I start
work on a novel today, it will take more than a year for it to see
publication. That’s when an irate reader would e-mail me: “The
Oceanside Inn closed down 10 months ago; how could the people in your
story be dining there?”
Meg Chittenden has written 30 mystery and romance novels under that name as well as Margaret Chittenden and Rosalind Carson. Her work also includes How to Write Your Novel and 100 short stories and articles. Web: www.megchittenden.com.|
(This article appeared in the July 2010 issue of The Writer.)