The principles of choosing and researching a real world location for your fictional setting follows the same rules regardless of the genre. So contemporary writers listen up, someone out there knows more about the downtrodden civic center you’ve picked as the setting for your new novel than you do. So if you don’t want the negative comments, follow these rules and reap the rewards.
Travel to the setting.
Imagine you’re the location scout for the movie version of you story. Where would you go? Nothing beats that first-hand multi-sensory experience of running your hands over the stone blocks of your building, or walking the twisted cobbled roads of your cityscape. However, it’s not always practical (or possible) to see the real location. If you can’t, you must collect data and lots of it. Find maps, guidebooks, information about the city’s public transit system and population demographics. Immerse yourself in the landscape. You should feel confident enough to give tourists directions, if not keep… researching.
Pick locations that trigger an emotional reaction.
As you travel your locations, look for ones that spark your creativity. If you fantasize about living in the old mansion on the edge of town, or panic every time you step into a certain dense grove of trees, chances are you can translate that emotion into a captivating setting. Can you see your characters inside those spaces? If you can’t, you should keep looking for a better setting to use as your model.
Look for an expert.
Documentaries, guidebooks, computer generated reconstructions, photos, maps, and diaries are wonderful things, but nothing beats finding an expert, particularly if you can’t travel to your site. Look for historical societies, university scholars and websites devoted exclusively to your place. Make sure to check the credentials of your expert, check out any books or articles they’ve published. Talk to the local papers. Newspapers often have one reporter who acts as historian. The newspaper may also have records about your site, or know who does. While you have the reporter’s attention, gather weather data and information about local events, or culinary traditions. Most experts would love to help you for a small donation to their museum, or mention in the book.
Try to understand the basic nature of the site and its real history.
Yes, of course you’re writing fiction, and everyone expects the author to adapt the sites to fit their needs, but when you pick a well-known site it comes with preexisting considerations. If you want to change the site’s fundamental nature, you need to give readers a reason to believe in your change. I like to think of this in the same way I do physical laws. Can characters defy gravity? Sure, as long as you give readers a reason they can. It’s the same with recognizable real world locations. Use them for any new purpose under the sun, but be prepared to create a back-story.
Include only the settings that relate directly to your plot.
Caryn has already reminded everyone of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. So don’t spend a page describing a castle on the hill, unless you plan to drag your protagonist inside it, and throw them face down on its filthy stone floor. Any setting acting as window dressing must go. Include only the places you’ve woven into the plot, or help define your character’s ethos.
Don’t add setting that sits apart from the action.
The exposition can’t read like some endless monotone from a cheap tour guide. The moment a writer drones on about geological features, and architectural details, readers start to skim. Just because you know everything about the Vatican, even down the last doorknob, doesn’t mean you need to tell us. Unless, of course, your character is OCD about doorknobs, and trapped inside the Vatican, in which case, please, carry on.
Double and triple check the details.
Another good reason to have an expert is they can help cut down on the last-minute fact checking. Make sure you have everything based on real world locations perfectly researched.The little things matter a great deal to some readers, so don’t diminish their enjoyment with mistakes.
Few things excite me as much as a wonderful setting. Please share with us a bit about your setting, and what makes that place special to you.
Up Next from Robin… From Apse to Ziggurat: Navigating Architectural Spaces