Where does your story take place? Is the setting of your story real, imaginary, or somewhere in between?
1. Real Settings
There is a distinct advantage in using a real setting for your story. You can go there. Walk the streets. Smell the wind. Listen to the traffic – or non-traffic – noises. You can stop by the local diner and try the daily special. Or if traveling there is impossible, you can do a virtual visit using Google Earth or Google maps street view.
But the disadvantage to using a real place as a setting for your fictional story is that your perception of the area might not match up with someone who actually lives there. Every place is someone’s hometown, and you run the risk of getting some little detail wrong.
It’s a little easier if you’re writing an historical story, since you don’t run as big of a risk of a reader having intimate knowledge of the setting you’re using – especially if your story takes place in an earlier century.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I got a letter from a reader after I published my first novel, The Prodigal Son Returns. I had set a few of the scenes in the real town of Goshen, Indiana, in the 1930’s, using my memories from the 1960’s and my dad’s descriptions of his memories of the town from his childhood to add details. But there is always the fear that the descriptions don’t ring true – until I received that note saying that the town I described was just the way this reader remembered it, down to the location of the barber shop on Lincoln Avenue.
2. Imaginary Settings
The advantage to creating an imaginary setting completely out of your head is that it’s yours. You get to decide what the weather is like, who lives in this fictional place, and what happens there.
The disadvantage with a setting like this is that you have to create an entire story-world out of your imagination (which is the main attraction for some authors!) Tolkien did this with his Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was so successful in bringing the reader into his story-world that millions of people felt like Middle Earth was a real place – even before the movies were made!
I’ve never written a setting like this. These are usually reserved for science fiction or fantasy stories, but it’s intriguing, isn’t it? To create that perfect world where imaginary beings live and breathe? I might have to try it sometime.
3. Somewhere in between
I have to confess that this is my favorite setting for my stories. This where you take an imaginary setting – a town, ranch, neighborhood – and nestle it into an existing real place.
The advantages of this kind of setting are huge. For instance, in my current Work in Progress, a contemporary cozy mystery, my setting is in the Black Hills. I’ve created my fictional town of Paragon and placed it in a particular spot. Of course, there isn’t a town there. Or even a crossroads. But it is in the middle of the Black Hills National Forest, which satisfies the requirements for the stories in the series.
However, the surrounding area is real. So, my characters can have lunch at Armadillos (my favorite ice cream shop,) or drive into Rapid City to buy groceries at Sam’s Club. And since I live in this real setting, I can be sure that my descriptions of the climate, traffic, the change in the atmosphere when the tourists arrive on Memorial Day weekend, and the EVENT that is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally are all accurate. When Emma walks out of the Sweetbrier Inn on a late April morning and encounters snow – that’s reality. In a fictional setting.
Another way to use this kind of setting is to set an historical story in a real place. My series, The Amish of Weaver’s Creek, takes place in the very real Amish settlement of Holmes County, Ohio. One reader who had grown up there told me that he felt like he was visiting his childhood home because my descriptions were so accurate.
But Weaver’s Creek and the Amish community surrounding it in a corner of Holmes County is all fictional. I set it a certain distance from Millersburg, Berlin, and Farmerstown – all real towns of the area – and used historical maps to make my descriptions of those towns fit my story setting of the 1860’s. Then I created my own map of the Weaver's Creek area - the farms, the houses, the roads, and where each family lived. The result is a small area my readers can become familiar with inside of a larger area they can visit.