Ask anyone in retail the three most important factors contributing to success and they’ll give you a one word answer: location. The often parodied marketing professional’s mantra – location, location, location – is also paramount to the success of any well-written piece of fiction.
For writers, that word is setting. The setting of a novel grounds the reader in the story, putting them vicariously in a place and time other than the present, not only communicating the location, but creating the mood. It can be illustrated both directly and indirectly.
Finding a location for your story seems simple. Pick a place, any place. Real or imagined. That is the direct setting. If the location is real and you have some time and frequent flyer miles, jet off to the proposed setting and take in the sites. Walk the streets, talk to the locals and sponge up the atmosphere. But for most writers, that type of hands-on research is not available. So, if first-hand experience isn’t a possibility, the Internet is a wonderful tool. Like your aunt’s weighty photo albums of her trip to the Grand Canyon, people love to share pictures of the places they’ve visited. There are no shortage of travel websites and blogs chronicling even the most hard-to-reach spots on the map. Another wonderful tool is Google Maps. Use street view to go on a virtual tour of a location. There is even a wonderful tool that allows mapping of distances on foot, bicycle or car so no matter the mode of transportation, even the time frames will be accurate.
Once the physical location is chosen, it’s time to add indirect attributes. These are the things included in a journal. The effect the place has not only on the eyes but on the senses. Be authentic. The setting is not simply a place or time. It’s a feeling whose details contribute to things like values and attitudes. Use sensory inputs to bring the location to life. What does it look like? How does it sound? What does it smell like? Does it have a taste? How does it feel, tactilely, to be there? Once these questions are answered , a framework for the indirect setting, upon which to build a feeling of the place, exists.
“I lie on the balcony in a hammock overlooking the sea. The moonlight reflects off the rolling waves, casting a shadow across the sand. A breeze rustles the palm trees as they swish and sway, swish and sway, their leaves dancing in the wind. Air rushes over me, my skirt fluttering around my ankles.”
The above passage not only grounds the reader in the tropical location, it makes them feel what it means to be there. By incorporating both direct and indirect components, the reader can readily imagine the setting. Getting the reader to inhabit the space in the same way as the character is the first step in providing an authentic and immersive experience. Once the reader is transported to the setting, they can experience the world the way the characters do.
When you choose the setting for your next piece of fiction, ask yourself some of the questions above. Once you have the answers, you’ll know you’ve fully explored your setting, embraced its nuances and are ready to take your reader on your journey.