About the same time, while skimming through piles of astronomy books, I noticed something on a message board I frequent. One of the semi-regular readers here (a whopping 10% of you, by all available numbers) who also posts there was asking questions about a location she wanted to use in a story she was working on.
As a wise man once said... link up here, link up there.
So, hey, let’s talk a bit about settings.
The setting is the when and where your story takes place. Simple, right? Some folks would argue it’s almost a character in its own right, because where you set your story can have a great effect on how the story is told. I’d agree, to the extent I think you should put at least as much thought into a story’s location as you would into one of your single-name supporting characters.
For all our intents and purposes, there are three types of settings.
A historical setting is one which takes place somewhere in the recorded past. It is limited to the world as it existed at that given time period, despite what the author may know happened later. Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo is a tale with a historical setting, as is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Braveheart was set against the backdrop of history, and so were Titanic and Public Enemies. If you’ve got premium cable, Deadwood and Mad Men are two series that used a historical setting.
Note that a historical setting doesn’t mean this has to be a 100% true story. More than half the tales I listed above are fictional or heavily fictionalized. There weren’t really two star-crossed lovers with a huge emerald sailing on the Titanic, but it was still set entirely in its respective time period and was true to that period.
A modern setting is set in the real world, usually within the past ten or fifteen years. It uses modern technology, terminology, and so on. Most television shows are set in the modern world for the simple reason it’s cheaper to film. Stephen King puts most of his stories in a modern setting, as do Thomas Harris, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, and countless others.
Again, a modern setting is not always a true, factual story. Castle Rock, Maine is not a real place. Stars Hollow, Connecticut does not exist. There also isn’t an occult library over the SoHo coffee shop in San Diego. However all of these places confirm to the rules (well, the overwhelming majority of the rules) of the world we see them in.
An imaginary setting is one which involves imagined locations, usually in an entirely imagined world. It’s anything the writer has to create mostly from the ground up—sci-fi, fantasy, future, and so on. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry is imaginary, as are Miskatonic University and Starfleet Academy. The worlds of Perth, Gallifrey, Vulcan, and Caprica were all created by their respective writers. While there are numerous uncharted islands in the South Pacific, I feel safe saying none of them are home to numerous ghosts and dueling Egyptian gods.
This is one of the hardest settings to pull off, as the writer needs to create an entire believable reality. You need to be able to answer questions which may not ever come up in your story and also come up with consistent ways for things to work under the new rules of this new world. Even an imaginary world needs boundaries and limits, after all. Can magic really do anything? Has mankind actually reached another galaxy in just five hundred years? Did Abraham Lincoln or JFK surviving change the world that much?
That brings up another point about the imaginary setting. It’s even tougher, sometimes, deciding what doesn’t need to be changed or created. What parts can you just leave the same as the real world? Measurements? Currency? This strange thing called love?
Now, one other little note before we move on. As important as the setting is, it’s still just the backdrop. It isn’t always directly connected to what’s happening in front of it. We can still write fantasy stories set in the real world. That’s why aliens can help build the pyramids in a historical setting. But note there’s a big difference between a world where aliens help build the pyramids as intergalactic trail markers and a world where these aliens are fought off by the combined magical might of sorcerers from Egypt, Babylon, and Rome.
So, how do you make a solid setting, of any type? Pretty much the same way you’d make a character. You just make it as believable as possible.
If you’re using a modern or historical setting, actually know the place you’re talking about. Spend time there if you can (it’s no coincidence most of my stories are set in Los Angeles, San Diego, or New England). If you can’t travel there, read every book you can. Look at every picture. Every place is unique, and it will be your job as a writer to learn those little (and not so little) tics that make them what, where, and when they are. 21st century London is very different from 15th century London, after all. Los Angeles and Boston each have their own unique vibes. Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story line up point for point, but the setting makes them two very different stories. When you get these points right, the millions of people who live in--or know of--these locations will commend you for it and raise their estimate of your story a few notches.
That also ties to the biggest danger with a modern or historical setting-- people will know if you get things wrong. Lots of people. Your potential audience lives in the real world, so they’ll catch on if you’ve got characters sitting on a beach in Maine watching the sunset across the water. They’ll cry foul if you claim it’s a forty minute drive from London to Cardiff. And they’ll call shenanigans if you say the taxicabs in Cairo are bright yellow (they’re black and white—blue and white in Luxor, and all white in Aswan).
And then they’ll toss your work into that large pile on the left and go get lunch.
Even imaginary settings should be unique. The world of Barsoom is very different from the world of Hoth. The future of Rendezvous with Rama is not the future of Terminator: Salvation, and neither of them resembles the future world Buck Rogers found himself in.
Once you know your world, you have to be consistent with it. We can’t have Army grunts one minute and the highly advanced U.S. laser battledroid squadron the next (or first—I’m pointing at you, George Lucas). Magic shouldn’t be something extremely rare until it conveniently starts flowing like water. Alien invaders who can build interstellar starships shouldn’t be baffled by doorknobs and stairs. In the same way it’s annoying when characters randomly act out of character, it can frustrate a reader when the entire world suddenly bends to suit the momentary needs of the story--or for no real reason at all.
And there you have it. Some random musings on story settings.
Next week... well, we all have to deal with it sometime. We’re going to talk about the end.
But keep writing until then.