It turned out that my mention of setting in a previous post, and about how I like to draw up a map before writing, proved to be quite interesting, I’ll go a bit more in depth on the concept of setting and how it’s important to the overall work in this blog post.
To put it simply, the setting is the place where everything happens. Easy enough. But that could be a single room, a town, or even an entire world. It could be place that exists now, a place that once existed, or a place that has never existed. I usually like to employ the latter, since it gives me a great deal of flexibility to pick and choose the aspects that I want it to have. The port town in Murder at the End of the World is a bit of a fusion of HP Lovecraft’s dour early-20th century Northeastern port cities with late-19th century Britain. Then I worked with the details to make the city very unfriendly and very, very isolated. The city almost begins to take on a life of its own as a character in the story, shaping the events that take place and molding the central mystery by its very nature. If the setting is moved to a much nicer, more open, and friendly city, then the central mystery changes dramatically, as does the overall tone.
However, this does not mean that using a brighter, friendlier setting must necessitate a brighter, friendly story. Such a setting might actually be used as a contrast to the darkness present in the story. If the purpose of the story is to showcase the dichotomy between expectations brought forward by the nature of the setting and how the story actually goes, then such a setting can work with a story of a darker tone. Strangely enough, I don’t usually go for the bright, friendly setting. I’m more likely to create something positively dour and unfriendly. Not exclusively, as some of the settings I use are much more “normal.” However, you’re more likely to see a vast, featureless desert or the ruined remains of some ancient city than anything else. Those are the locations I like to read about, so I just naturally gravitate towards them in my own writing.
So what makes a good setting? That’s a hard one to answer, but there are many different kinds of settings that can all work very well, settings that may have nothing at all in common. The only thing I can offer here is to say that a good setting is one that works with the kind of story being told. A dark, paranoid port city works well with my murder mystery and a dangerous, bizarre desert land works well with my story of a young man’s desperate search for his missing sister. There’s no one setting that will work every time, either you must tailor the setting to fit the story or tailor the story to fit the setting. The key is in understand how those two aspects of your novel work in tandem.
In the story I’m currently finishing up, The Eminence of Bardon Roket, makes use of a city that bears a striking resemblance to New York City just after the turn of the century. Steam power is prominent, airships are common, and gasoline autos are first making their appearance. It goes well with a story that pokes fun at corporate and political culture, but by avoiding the use of a real city from a real time I have the flexibility to tweak things just a bit for the purposes of the story. It’s not a real city, but it feels like maybe it could be.
The price of creating your own unique setting is that you must come up with everything from your own imagination. If you’ve got a very vivid imagination, this can work out very well for you. However, that doesn’t mean that you can just slack off and spit things out when you feel like it. The real world has cohesion and small details that work towards crafting the bigger picture. The old city of New York grew naturally over time into the current city of New York, all sleek and modern. It didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen by accident. The city has a long history. That doesn’t mean that your unique setting must have several centuries of detailed history, but inserting some history here and there can make your setting that much more alive and that much more realistic.
With The Stone that Disturbs the Water, the first entry in a fantasy series that I’m writing, I sat down and spent some time coming up with the history of my world. I came up with previous cultures that no longer exist, the sad history of a country that now lies in ruins, kings and rulers from the past whose contributions to the world helped shape it into the form it’s in now. Little pieces of history scattered around, nuggets of information that give just a bit more life and realism to a world that exists only in my mind.
Coming up with the setting on my own saves on research, but that doesn’t mean its an open invitation to throw everything into a big pot and hope it cooks into something worthwhile. Work is still necessary, even work that your readers may never know anything about.