Thursday, October 15, 2009

Setting the Scene

Natalie Bahm's posts from a little over a week ago got me thinking about settings and the proverbial hoops we as writers jump through to put them together. The discussion proved interesting to say the least, and sparked the realization that setting is really, really difficult.

With imaginary settings, you have the freedom of molding the set to suit the story. Fantasy and sci-fi presents the unique problem of having to describe every detail you can to craft an effective backdrop for the story. Type of building, age of building, big city or small town, rural or urban, the natural world, the unnatural world -- these are just a few of the things you have to worry about as a creator of an imaginary place.

Now, setting your tale in a real place has an added dimension of making sure you get everything right. What's this mean for the writer? You can't place your MC's house in the middle of an intersection for example; and you also can't place the library clear across town from where it actually is. The burden of mapping out the city accurately is intense on the writer setting their tale in a real place.

Which, incidentally, is one of the bigger reasons that I prefer to not set any stories in real places. I'll choose a random place in the middle of a state somewhere -- generally where I know there's not an actual city/town already -- but almost never will you see me writing mainstream fiction that's set in New York City or San Francisco or Chicago. I haven't spent enough time in any of those places to give a story set there the kind of veracity it needs. Would I set a tale in Salem, the city my alma mater is located in and where I lived for a year? Probably. But that all depends on the kind of story it is.


L. T. Host said...

Whoa. We are on a wavelength today :)

At any rate, I completely agree. I prefer the balance between fantasy and reality: a made-up place in the real world.

Joshua McCune said...

Setting's tricky -- particularly fantasy ones... how much is too much (or too little)? This is one of my biggest dilemmas during writing/editing.

Natalie said...

I struggle with this, (as you know). Real places are hard to get right and balancing the level of detail in a fictional place is challenging too. I still can't decide where to set my new story. I might just write it and decide later :)

Susan R. Mills said...

Yes, Natalie's post got me thinking about this too. My ms is set in a real town. It makes me nervous that I won't get the details right. I'm actually considering going there again and making sure I know the town like the back of my hand.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Setting my story in ancient Egypt has been beneficial in that I can kind of fudge some details. For example, we know the capitol during Hatshepsut's time was in Waset (modern Luxor) and that the palace was on the east bank of the Nile. But we don't know what the palace looked like or where it was because those were built of mud-brick. So I can improvise.

But I wanted to get the gritty details of what Egypt looked like, what it feels like to be out in the sun in the middle of the afternoon in the Valley of the Kings. So I dragged my husband there. Twice. :)

Adam Heine said...

I'm with you on this. Usually my novels are so far separated from modern Earth that nobody can say, "Hey! That's not how it is!"

The one time I did place something in the real world, it was the city I was living in, and it lasted a whole scene. And my new novel, which takes place entirely in the real world, is in Thailand because (a) it's where I live and (b) how many English-speaking spec-fic readers are gonna know enough about Thailand to call me on anything?

But the sequel to said novel is in the US. It has to be, plotwise, so I'm scared. Fortunately that's a long way away.