Monday, October 18, 2021

Deciding What Setting to Use, Part 1


Where does your story take place? Is the setting of your story real, imaginary, or somewhere in between?

If you aren't sure, maybe I can help. Here is my take on the different kinds of settings you can use for your novel.  

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.

Whew!


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.

A creek in Holmes County, Ohio - the inspiration for Weaver's Creek
 
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. 


How does that happen? How do our minds gently erase a portion of a map and overlay an imaginary community where none really exists?

How can we all know the Hundred Acre Woods, Hogwarts Castle, Plum Creek, or Deep Valley like they are in our back yards - when we've never actually been there...

Betsy's home in Deep Valley

...and if we are able to visit in person, we feel like we've come home.

Laura's Plum Creek

That's one of the intriguing things about reading and the imagination, isn't it?

Next month, I'll be talking about the kind of research that a writer can do to make their settings take on that feeling of reality.

Meanwhile, let's talk about settings. What book setting would you love to visit if you could?

18 comments:

  1. Good morning, Jan! I can't wait for to read this next book of yours. I love books set in places I know, but I also love reading about places I probably will never go or never could go. That's the beauty of books. As far as writing goes, I like writing about places I know well, for exactly the reasons you said. I would hate to turn someone off by not making their place real enough.

    Thanks for another great post!

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    1. That reminds me of a saying - something about going places in books we could never go to ourselves. And you're right, that is the beauty of books!

      You're welcome, and I hope you get to read the cozy mystery soon! No date yet, but I'm working on it.

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  2. Good morning, Seekerville!

    The buffet is spread with a breakfast provided by Wil, the world-class chef at the Sweetbrier Inn! Sliced rolled omelets with spinach and mushroom filling topped with a light drizzle of b├ęchamel sauce, assorted muffins from the local bakery, and a fresh fruit salad.

    Let's talk about our favorite settings!

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  3. Love it, Jan! I like somewhere between. My fictional towns have been set around the Asheville, NC area (1800's) because that is fairly close to where I live and know so well. There is plenty of research to be done during the writing process, so the climate, the smells, the views, is one less thing to worry with because I already live it. Although, after the 6 week trip my husband and I just took to the Black Hills and beyond, gave me insight to a whole new world. There are so many real places out there for mishaps and maybe even bury a dead body! Kidding! (Sort of)

    When I wrote the first book in my first series, I didn't name my town, I just ran reference to it being in the foothills of NC. My readers wanted me to be more specific, so I named the town...even though it is a fictional town, so the remainder of the series did seem to satisfy all of us.

    I wish I had known you lived out where we were. I would have looked you up! If I ever run away from home, I could probably be found right around Cody, Wyoming. I absolutely fell in love with the Northwest, and have already taken some of my characters to Dubois, Wyoming.

    Thanks for all your insight!

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    1. When we moved here about ten years ago, my dad said, "You live where people go on vacation." And we really do! The Black Hills are a gateway to the Old West - as I'm sure you discovered. I really do love it here.

      And it sounds like you've discovered the secret to making your setting authentic! I call it "feet on the ground." When you've been where you place your characters, it's a joy to write from their point of view, isn't it?

      And as far as burying a dead body in the West - you're right. From my research for writing cozy mysteries, I've learned many ways to dispose of a murder victim out where your closest neighbors are mountain lions and coyotes...but I've also learned that even the best laid plans can be foiled by good detective work.

      And if I ever run away from home, you'll find me somewhere near Buffalo, Wyoming. I love the Bighorn Mountains (just east of Cody!)

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  4. Jan, I'm afraid if I tried to create a Tolkien-type world, I'd never get to the story. I have to send up a flare for someone to come and find me. ;)

    I've used both real settings and somewhere-in-between. And I have to say, after writing nine books in a real setting I had a hard time coming up with a fictitious one. Which is how I settled on somewhere in between. I pulled elements from several real towns to create my own!

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    1. I loved your books set in Ouray, Colorado! They show how you can use a real setting successfully!

      But I still like the somewhere in between, especially working with small towns. My current WIP has an art gallery. If I set the story in Hill City, every tourist who has been there would be able to identify that gallery and I'm not sure the non-fiction owners would appreciate that!

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  5. Thanks, Jan for such a great discussion about setting. My current WIP is set in the imaginary town of Corinth, nestled in the very real Flint Hills of northeastern Kansas. Thanks to L. Frank Baum, Dorothy, and Toto, many people think of Kansas as flat and gray. Not true at all! I'm hoping my story can help readers to see a Kansas they never knew existed.

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    1. I fell in love with Kansas as a child when we visited relatives in McPherson. And until we moved to South Dakota, the Flint Hills was one of my favorite areas in the world! But then the Black Hills and surrounding grasslands edged out the Kansas prairies, but the Flint Hills are still in the top five. What a great setting for your story!

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  6. Such a good blog post, Jan! Thank you!

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  7. Chapel Cove courtesy of Alexa Verde, Marion Ueckermann
    Hope Harbor courtesy of Irene Hannon
    Eagle Harbor courtesy of Naomi Rawlings

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    1. Thanks for the setting suggestions, Jcp!

      Since I grew up in Michigan, the UP (and especially the Keweenaw Peninsula) is one of my top five favorite places in the world, and Naomi Rawlings describes it so well in her Eagle Harbor books.

      I haven't read the other two - they're going on my TBR list today!

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  8. Great post, Jan. Didn't make it here yesterday, but enjoying it now. I look forward to reading your cozy mystery. Since I have been to the Black Hills a lot, I will be familiar with a lot of the places. I am writing a fictional town in a real area. I am still trying to figure out how to incorporate real places into it. I like to visit areas I have read about in fictional books, too.

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  9. My WIP is set in Vermont, and I’ve never been there. Hope to visit and do some research, Lord willing. It is historical (early 1900’s) ~ so, I am somewhere in between. I was just in your neck of the woods ~ Mt. Rushmore, Badlands, Rapid City. Loved it!

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  10. I would love to visit so many settings in books but will settle for immersing myself into the community via reading.

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  11. I would Love to visit Montana someday!

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