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Let’s think about place

I saw this review in The Seattle Times for the new David Guterson novel. The book is set in Seattle, and it sounds from the description that it’s an important part of the book. It got me to thinking about settings and the inherent importance of where a novel takes place.

So much of the best fiction has a strong sense of place. Think The Help or Gone with the Wind. Could you imagine them set anywhere but the South? And what about Carl Hiassen’s books set in Florida, where he has lived all his life? Or Annie Proulx’s excellent The Shipping News, which is like taking a trip to Newfoundland.

Even on my own list, Amy Plum’s Die for Me takes place in Paris, as advertised on the cover with a gorgeous image of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. And the just-released middle grade fantasy Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by A.J. Hartley is set in Atlanta. I recall when I sold the book that one of the conversations with his publisher was about how few books are set there, and how that fact was one of the things that set the book apart.

So, for those of you writing fiction, how do you decide where your novel will take place? And is it one of the first things you think about when you start writing? Or do you think of the setting before you even begin?

I think it’s as important as plot or character development to have the right atmosphere in which to tell your story. It’s the finer details of place that really bring a novel to life, and that makes for the best kind of fiction. What are your favorite books that feature a strong sense of place?

9 Responses to Let’s think about place

  1. Great post, Stacey!

    I find place extremely important. I consider it early on, as it shapes and affects the characters’ lives, demeanor and language in various ways. For the same reason, I choose places I know well. For example, my first two novels take place in MN & NY, where I’ve lived, though I have this *fabulous* idea for a thriller set in India. (Perfect excuse for a globetrotting adventure…;))

  2. Years ago I heard an interview with the man who directed the movie adaptation of THE SHIPPING NEWS. He said that Newfoundland was a character in the story, a character as important as any of the people. That stuck with me and has influenced my writing ever since. I want people to say that about the setting in my books.

  3. Seattle is such a great setting for novels.
    I’m drawing upon the Seattle spookiness for my paranormal project. Yes, there are almost as many Seattle paranormal novels as there are New Orleans paranormal novels, but seriously. It’s weird here.

    We’ve a long history of weird. Criminals and prostitutes during the Klondike gold rush. Deranged ‘doctors’ starving their Victorian patients to death. A massive fire burning down half the city. Who couldn’t love it.

    It’s also a great setting for SciFi/Cyberpunk, with Microsoft and Boeing.

    Nature/survival novels? Yah, we’ve got that covered.

    Nautical fun? Oh heck yah.

    Even though Seattle is often used, I still think there’s plenty of room for more stories, and as a 3rd generation native, I reserve the right to use my hometown as I see fit.

  4. Emily says:

    Place seems to me to grow organically out of my stories — but then I spent a few years as a travel writer so PLACE has been a big part of my personal story.

    As for novels I love? The original DUNE series and the GEORGE SMILEY spy novels are favorites. In DUNE the characters had to struggle against the desert environment and its deep, mysterious monsters. In LeCarre’s novels, the people must be British … so the setting matches even though they do travel the world.

  5. Silver James says:

    Some books can be plopped anywhere–the location has little impact on the characters or the story arc/plot. Other books cry out for the perfect setting–the icy lake and freezing wind of Chicago in January, the heat and humidity blanketing the French Quarter as the scent of beignets and chicory coffee fills the air, for instance. I have an urban fantasy set in the former, a romantic suspense with ghosts in the latter.

    The atmosphere and vibe of a place can drive the story, and it truly is a character if handled correctly. As for process, the characters and plot tell me where the story needs to occur.

    Clive Cussler does setting as character very well and as you mentioned, I can’t imagine THE SHIPPING NEWS being set anywhere but Newfoundland. And SMILIA’S SENSE OF SNOW had to be set in Copenhagen and Greenland.

  6. I tend to set my stories in the downriver suburbs of Detroit because that’s where I’m from and what I know, but also because it’s hardly ever represented in literature. Detroit, yes, has Elmore Leonard, but downriver’s something different, with an attitude that comes from Detroit, and a redneck culture (so to speak) that comes from the South, which is where a lot of the locals come from. Plus, it’s colorful, as attested to by the story that hit the national news this week about a drunken father bragging about his nine year old daughter being his designated driver. That happened about eight miles from where I live, and didn’t strike me as news so much as typical. There is a reason that half the cities around me have nicknames with -tucky added as a suffix.

  7. Sarah Henson says:

    My stories are all set in the South. It’s where I’m from and what I know. I know the voice and language and feel of the South. I usually make up the towns and never come out and say it takes place in Anywhere, Alabama, but let little identifiers like sweet tea and supper (instead of dinner) set the mood. There’s nothing I hate more than when someone who isn’t Southern writes Southern dialog and makes us all sound like we’re grew up in the 1800s or are all bumpkins, or tries to describe humidity (ha!).

    When I think of books/authors with a great sense of place, I immediately think of Stephen King. He typically tells you his setting is in Maine, etc, but he doesn’t have to. You get the feel of it without the name of the state.

  8. Andrea says:

    It depends. I’m currently writing a fantasy novel for which I invented my own subcontinent and time period, but I didn’t start with setting, I started with theme. Then the main characters appeared, then the first plotline, and I was determined that my setting would at least have a huge wild and ancient temperate forest, and mountains. Not the most original of fantasy settings, but forest and mountains are my own favorite places and I knew that to get the right atmosphere in my story, I had to have that forest and I had to have those mountains.

    Actually, now I think about it, even before I thought of theme, I knew what kind of “feeling” I wanted the story to evoke, which I guess is closely related to atmosphere and setting. I walked around with that “feeling” for years without having even a vague idea about a story whatsoever. So maybe yes, setting was the first step, if it can be partly defined as a feeling, however vague.

    It’s funny, because I only recently discovered that there are obvious parallels between the development of my main character and the history of her country, so there must be some symbolism there.

    For my next novel project, I only have a setting so far. No characters, no plotline, not even an idea of theme, but that’s because I’m concentrating on finishing my current project’s first draft.

    My favorite books that feature a strong sense of place? I don’t really know, to be honest. Fantasy novels usually have a strong sense of place because that is part of the genre. Some fantasy novels seem to concentrate too much on presenting an original world, and forget about things like character development.
    One of my favorite non-fantasy novels is To Kill a Mockingbird, which evoked a strong sense of place, but especially time.

  9. Stacey says:

    Thanks for your responses and take on my post. I look forward to seeing more fiction that takes me away to another place!

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