Thursday, January 6, 2011

Does it Really Matter WHERE?

Before we have our awesome talk with Delia about her brand new book in the coming week, we need to read this interesting insight of hers with regard to SETTINGS and descriptions of settings in a story. How the writer comes up with what it is she or he comes up with.

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.

One of the many details an author has to consider when writing a work of fiction is where it will take place. It’s a little difficult to take a reader through an entire book without giving them some sense of location.

Location, Location, Location
That 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…
Location, therefore, depends to some extent on your storyline. Or…if your location is set in stone, then your storyline needs to mold to that environment with accuracy and believability.

Other things need to be considered in setting, aside from the obvious weather conditions, or flora and fauna.


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.

General settings. States and/or countries completely aside, local setting matters. Surfers don’t tend to congregate in Oklahoma. Beach settings aren’t often arid and dry. Setting can even be reflected in the foods your hero and heroine most often eat. If they live on the coast, chances are they eat more seafood than a character who lives in Kansas or Wyoming. You’ll find more collard greens on the table of a Southern character than one who lives in Los Angeles.

So many details that can make or break a story, little things that make it believable or totally unrealistic. Place has its place in every storyline. Location, location, location.

The answer is “yes.” It really matters WHERE.

© 2010 Delia Latham

As a reader, how do you search for your books? Do you prefer stories written on shores of Ireland, along the English countryside, on the American soils, or where? And why?

As a writer, how do select your settings? And how do you do YOUR research for your storyline?

Drop us a line and tell us your thoughts.


  1. Since I wrote this article, I've been vividly reminded of the importance of getting the details right. On a visit with an aunt in Arizona, she laughingly brought out a book (by an author I recognized, no less), and proceeded to point out all the glaring inaccuracies the writer had included about the Grand Canyon and surrounding regions. Being a lifelong Arizona resident, my aunt was intimately familiar with the area, and picked up immediately on the discrepancies - and impossibilities - in the story. Cringe! Yes, location matter. So do details. :)

  2. Ah, yes. And it is interesting how these things are so often brought to a fellow author's attention. Thanks for the addition, Delia.

  3. So to the mantra 'location, location, location' may I add 'research, research, research'!

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  6. Yes, you may, Tracy! How's this? Research, research, research your location, location, location! :D