Setting the Scene


Last week, I went on my honeymoon. Yep, I have my happily-ever-after ending now, finally… I’m going to be 40 in a couple months, so it’s about time!

This post isn’t about my honeymoon, though. Well, of course I’ll probably find little excuses here and there to mention it, but it isn’t the actual plot of the post. (Wait… do nonfiction posts have plots? Probably not, huh. Guess I need more coffee to be coherent.)

Anyway… I’m posting today about setting scenes in novels. As in, location, location, location. Sometimes where the story takes place can be just as important as who it happens to and what happens. Especially if you’re writing about a real place. If you have something wrong about a real-life location, some readers might say, “Oh, well, it’s just fiction, we’ll let it go,” but others will not be happy, especially if you mess up something big about their hometown.

In some cases, the setting of a novel doesn’t have a huge impact on the story itself. The story might take place in, say, upstate New York, but your imagination could change all the references to New York into mentions of Arizona, and other than the differences in climate that might affect the characters’ clothing choices, it wouldn’t make a difference. In stories like that, the plot and/or characters are the main focus, and the author made an arbitrary choice of location, maybe because they live there. Which is great, in my opinion. I like reading plot-driven or character-driven stories.

But some stories depend on their setting as much as the plot and characters, and some locations just plain aren’t interchangeable. If a romance novel is set in Bangor, Wales, it would definitely have a huge impact on the overall story if you tried to change it to Bangor, Maine. In some stories like that, the city or town becomes almost a character itself, and if an author can write like that, they have my admiration.

A lot of my stories have very vague locations. For example, right now I’m writing a new romance novel about a woman who takes a job with a “marine assistance” company. (Think auto road service, but for boats instead of cars, and with tow boats instead of tow trucks.) My fi–I mean, husband (taking me a while to get used to that) works for such a company; his dad owns the Boston franchise of it. Because of that, and because I also work for my father-in-law, in my head the story takes place in Boston. However, nowhere in the story do I mention a location, other than describing the place as a big city with a harbor. Could be Boston, could be Portland, Maine, could be anywhere. Except for the necessity of being on the ocean, the location wasn’t important to the story.

On the other hand, my novella Deep Down was originally written for a special call for stories about large cities, and the city was expected to be a big part of the plot. (That publisher rejected it… Siren published it, though.) I chose Boston, which has been my favorite city since I was about 10. Because of the requirements of the special call, I had to make Boston actually be Boston. I had to describe it accurately and try to give the reader a feeling of what Boston’s really like. Harder than it sounds… Just before publication, I discovered that I’d completely bollixed one of Boston’s subway routes. Since the hero is a subway musician and both he and the heroine frequently ride the route in question, and I’d set his apartment near one of the stations, I definitely had to get that right.

While I was on my honeymoon, I stayed on Cape Cod for a week, in a gorgeous, half-glass cottage on a cove. (Thanks, Auntie!) The scenery was beautiful, and my husband and I took a couple drives around the area just to see it, since I’d never been to Cape Cod before. A couple story ideas popped into my head while we were there, and they’re on my project list now. Since they take place on Cape Cod, in real towns and locations, I’d darn well better do my research and make sure I describe the place accurately. If I get it wrong, someone will notice.

Hmm… that might mean I’ll have to go back there. How sad. LOL

When an author chooses to make a location part of a story, rather than just having a location because the story has to take place somewhere (which is the case in a lot of my stories), the author needs to make sure they know the location well enough to write it realistically and accurately. Otherwise, a reader will notice, and might not be too happy. If you don’t live in the place you’re writing about and aren’t able to visit it (say it’s across the ocean or something), at least research it thorougly online. In my novel Eternal Love, which is due out in July, part of the action takes place in Wales, in a fictional town that’s in a real part of the country. Since I’ve never been there, and a European visit wasn’t in the cards for me, I contacted a friend who lives in Northern Ireland, and she got in touch with a friend of hers who lives in Wales. Between the two of them, they gave me enough information and internet links that I was able to describe the area in which I imagined the town accurately.

Sometimes the setting can make or break the story. Sometimes, if an author gets it too wrong, it can make or break the author. So in writing, make sure you know where you’re talking about.

And if you’re a reader, enjoy the books that take place in locales you’ve never been to–consider them a vacation.

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