LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
GETTING THE SETTING RIGHT
Regardless of the genre of a story, all fiction writers must decide on a setting where it will unfold. Picking a setting is too important to leave to a random dart tossed at a map. In order to be believable, the setting must make sense for the characters and for the story itself. The writer must consider several things in order to choose the setting.
Physical Location: Where on the globe, or in the universe, the story will take place influences who you can write about. If you want your main character to be the Chief of Surgery at a world renowned hospital, an active member of the Board of Directors for the symphony and drive a vintage Jaguar that is often in need of repair then you should place your story in a city, not some remote section of the rain forest in South America.
Timing: Setting also refers to the time frame of a story. Although you may write a tale of little green people coming to earth in 400 BC and interacting with the natives, if you want your reader to believe that they were welcomed with open arms and lived happily side by side, the story might be better set after the industrial revolution.
Climate: Often as writers we use weather to indicate the passage of time, “She woke to the sound of rain on the tin roof.”, then later we will say, “The sun warmed her back as she worked in the garden.” But if the climate itself is a necessary element it needs to make sense. If the story is about a main characters recovering from the loss of their home due to a hurricane, the story should take place on the coast as opposed to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Of course if the story is about a freak act of nature, such as a hurricane where the residents would not be expecting one, than Tulsa might just be the spot for you .
As a writer picking the right location for my work in progress series of RACHEL SHORTE MYSTERIES was a difficult decision. At first I thought a large city would be the best choice, someplace familiar to me. I love New York, grew up there, but it seemed too big for the character I had in mind. Paris, which to me is New York in French, would be fun, but my use of the language can only be described as abusive. Then I thought of Miami, lively and colorful, I could drive down for research and Mojitos, but being a tourist I didn’t think I could capture the true feel of its energy. Other cities came to mind, I rejected each for one reason or another. As I saw it, the solution was for my characters to live in a fictional location.
For me, a basic outline of my town was the best way to start, in fact the first question was would it be a town or a city? I thought being a town would be less complicated, although thinking back on it now I don’t know why I thought that. Then, how big of a town should it be? And where should it be located?
The answer came to me quickly, it would be a suburban setting, with a population around forty-thousand, a lot like the town I live in, but better since I took my favorite parts of three different towns to create it.
My town, New Grace, is a suburb of Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina. One advantage to setting my fictional town in a real location, like earth, is my characters can go to actual places, the kind of places known to non-faux people. Not only can my characters run into the city for museums and the theater, they can go to actual places such as the Riverbank Zoo and Garden, EdVenture Children’s Museum or a protest at the statehouse. However, what is the fun of creating a fictional town if your characters are going to spend their time in a real location.
When I started my first Rachel Shorte story I only knew a few facts about her, she is an associate attorney at a firm and her leisure time passion is sailing. With that in mind, she rebuilt a wooden hull Morgan. I knew if I had a beautiful sailboat like that I would want to see it out my window, so now I needed a lake for her to live on and places for her to go when the wind is blowing just right.
I enjoy adding the details to my county. Although the capitol, New Grace, is the center of most activity in my stories, there are other towns in the county and so far they seem to come into existence when my character needs to spend a little time away from home or when the mystery calls for an unfamiliar destination.
I picked the name New Grace because I wanted to project an image of somewhere angelic, peaceful. I hoped the reader would picture the kind of place where the streets are clean, the water is clean, the air is clean. It was important to me the name portray suburbia with nicely mowed lawns, strip malls with familiar stores lining the avenues and subdivisions popping up like dandelions. I wanted it to be nice place for my characters to live since so many people die in my stories, it was the least I could do.
One thing I hadn’t really considered was that creating a fictional world requires meticulous note keeping. There may be several parks in the area, but if I describe the one with the manmade waterfall that looks like it was placed there by Mother Nature more than once I need to be sure to give it the same name. Since almost everything I write is centered in New Grace there are places which were written in one story and spill over into another. Everyone in the county knows that Crete is the best place for baklava, no one prepares a better pasta dish than the chef at Alexandros and while Le Cup might not be the best coffee in the world, it is good to support a local chain. I have had to sketch out the county indicating where each town is located. I have a more detailed map of the town of New Grace showing the main roads, establishments I have mentioned and the homes of my characters in relationship to them and each other. Keeping everything straight is hard work, but it is worth it.
How do you keep track of the locations that appear in your stories?