Saturday, January 16, 2010

Where Am I?

There's a bit of disagreement amongst writers, with the question of setting and its importance to a story. Some feel that setting, (or, place) is ALL-important. Others feel it's of minimal importance. Though I understand both ends of the spectrum, I actually fall somewhere in the middle.

To clarify - setting can include details such as weather, season, specific year (is it current, or 3 decades ago) -- all of which are important. But what I'm talking about is place. Where is the story/novel set? Is it in a tiny town? A bustling big city? A factory? A glitzy restaurant? A third-world country? It's the answer to the "Where Am I?" question readers need to have, in order to "place" the characters into a particular setting in their minds.

In the past, I've written a novel in which the city was sort of a fictional "Everytown." Where the characters/story superceded the city itself, in terms of importance. Though I gave the city a (made-up) name and added specific details about the surroundings, it hopefully felt like the story could take place in just about any average-sized city in America. I still feel comfortable with that decision, for that particular novel.

But the series I'm currently writing has a much heavier sense of "place." It's fictional, too, but it's very much based upon an actual town: Castle Combe, UK, a village in the Cotswolds, known as "the prettiest little village in England."

I admit it. I love England. I've been there only once, as a tourist, on a 3-week tour and I hope to go back someday. I love the accents, the music, the history, the literature. And I also admit, unabashedly, unapologetically, that in my series, the Cotswolds are extremely romanticized. My fictionalized village IS quaint. It DOES have little shops and cobblestone paths. It IS peaceful and serene. The villagers ARE mostly unified and are kind to each other (though they do love to gossip!). I understand fully that actual residents of Castle Combe would probably read my novel and roll their eyes at me or even chuckle. "That's not how things really are," they might say.

But the great thing is that, in a novel, using a fictionalized name, I can get away with it. I can be idealistic and make that village whatever I want it to be. And, in terms of "place," that particular village, in my head, is the perfect place to set my particular series. It just seems to work.

So, how important is place to you? It might vary, from story to story. But the beauty of it is that, as with any decisions you'll make as a writer, the choice is blissfully YOURS.


  1. Traci, a question: do you think it's important to have actually visited the place that becomes your story's setting? (Assuming, of course, that it's not a made-up place.) Perhaps the rule would be--yes, if it's somewhere your reader is likely to have been (e.g., Paris), and no, if it's, say, the Himalaya...? I'd be interested in a writer's perspective.

    One of the things I like about your blog is that it helps me figure out how fiction writers think--since I'm not one myself, but I do read a lot.

  2. Hi Gayle - what a great question! Hmm...this is just my opinion, but here goes:

    Ideally, yes, I think visiting a place (for a lengthy time) is the best way to go, in terms of soaking up details (sounds, sights, smells, even culture and dialect). The descriptions, I think, would be much easier, that way. But thanks to the internet, I think it's possible to come close (by researching that area heavily). For me, sure, I'd LOVE to do my research first-hand, visit Castle Combe for an extended time, really observe life there. But since that's not possible, I've researched the village extensively online, from getting a local pub menu to finding out the seasonal temperatures (, etc. I do try to be as accurate as possible. I don't know we writers did without the internet - surely, that sort of research was available somewhere, but not this easily, and not this quickly.

    Anyway, I think the bottom line is probably authenticity, as far as trying your best to get the details as accurate as possible. And, there's always the challenge of perspective. In real life, 2 people could live in the same city all their lives and have totally different perspectives/opinions of that city. So, I do think there's a little wiggle room for the "perspective" of the author, in the midst of facts.

    For me and this British series, I do think I can get away with some minor inconsistencies because my audience (I'm assuming) would be primarily American. So, it's really an American's (romanticized) view of Britain.

    There are some authors that do incredibly extensive research on their settings, and yes, I do think they're better able to immerse the reader inside that setting than I would be (not having visited Castle Combe, myself).

    I feel like I'm giving a scattered answer, here, but it's a deep question, with lots to consider. I love these kinds of discussions - thanks for asking the question! I'd also love to hear from other fiction writers, what their answers to this question might be...?

  3. Well I've been writing/planning a YA book for a good few years and the place is allows me to have my choice in everything. I've also just finished writing a chick-lit book in which the town is fictional. People have said this is the wrong way to go - that chick-lit books are usually set in real towns and cities, but the type of book I'm writing requires a fictional setting, although it could be any town in the UK. Sorry about my rambling ill at the moment!

  4. As a reader, place is as important as character development. Since I can't 'go' to the place, I'm counting on the writer to 'take me there' with as much detail and authenticity as possible. Of course, in fiction there's lots of leeway to veer off track with setting.