It's not as hard as you think. Or maybe it's not as easy as you think. Or maybe you already know, but your curiosity is driving you to read what she thinks too. (That's how it was for me. That's how it always is with me.)
The truth is, you can't just write a story about anywhere unless you know why. And it makes a difference if you want to get it published somewhere. There's always the chance one publisher isn't interested in anything written in Borneo, but she'd like to see the next book she publishes taking place in Duluth. How can you wind your Borneo story into the city of Duluth instead without changing every other page, what the character's wearing, and whether or not she should be going barefoot or not. See what I mean?
You've got to really think these things through and know why you're writing what you're writing.
And you want to make sure you're right about it when you do. Because, who knows? Someone just might be from that very place you're describing on your first few pages.
Let's see what Delia has to say in this month's Writing Tip.
Does it Really Matter WHERE?
By Delia Latham
It don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summer time…
And it don’t snow in Minneapolis when the winter comes…
Right. Try making a half-intelligent reader believe either of those lies. Even if they’ve never been to Indianapolis, never visited Minneapolis, Roger Miller’s old song let us all know without a single doubt that it most certainly does those things in those cities.
Location, Location, LocationThat said…does it matter what that place is?
While some books don’t shine a spotlight on any particular location, details provide at least vague hints. As a reader, if I come across a really unusual landmark or some sort of quirky weather in a work of fiction, my curiosity is aroused. If the author hasn’t spelled out a specific location, I start flipping through the book looking for one.
Do we really want to force our readers to do that? I don’t! The best thing to do, then, is decide on a specific location for the reader to pinpoint on his mental atlas.
One of the pluses to having a specific location in mind is that it forces the writer to adhere to a degree of accuracy, and that’s always good.
- Ex: A tornado is ripping through my heroine’s neighborhood. Warning sirens are screaming, and the whole family is headed for the storm cellar. It is to be hoped that I haven’t stated my setting as a fictional town in central California! If I have, most readers will close the book and find something else to read, because I obviously either live in some kind of alternate reality or I haven’t done my research.
- Ex 2: A character has been viciously attacked by an alligator. If the attack is crucial to your storyline, use it. But for Heaven’s sake, do not then tell us he’s in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona! I’m not even sure there’s an alligator in that zoo…but I haven’t done that research.
- Ex 3: You want to set your novel in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the time of year needs to be mid-winter. That opens up a lot of possibilities for an exciting storyline—good for you! Now don’t spoil it by sending your character outside wearing capris and a light cardigan. You’ll have to hospitalize her for hypothermia—and hopefully you won’t send her to UCLA for that medical care…
Other things need to be considered in setting, aside from the obvious weather conditions, or flora and fauna.
PINPOINTING WITH CLARITY
What about dialect? Stephen King is superb at pinpointing Maine as his typical setting simply by writing the dialect into his characters’ speech patterns. (Seriously, where else would a character spout “Ayuh” in every other sentence?) Southern states have a distinctive way of speaking, as well. And it shouldn’t be hard to identify a Cajun character’s location if you can master his language in your writing. (Have you read The Green Mile?)
Religious affiliations. Yep, setting matters. While nothing’s impossible (at least, not with God…), you’re a whole lot less likely to find an Amish community in the Los Angeles area than in say, somewhere around Philadelphia, wouldn’t you agree? And if your main character was born and raised in Utah, please don’t try to convince your reader that they’ve never met a Mormon. What are the chances? Little pockets of specific religious denominations do exist in various locations.