by Savannah J. Foley
Think of your favorite book. Think of the characters; what do you love about them? What do you see them doing?
More importantly, where are they?
Today I’d like to talk about the importance of Setting, and how it impacts both your writing life and your future readers.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about Harry Potter. I assume most of you out there are fans. What do you think has led to the prominence of Harry Potter fan fiction on Fanfiction.net? Is it the characters? Is it the widespread popularity? I propose to you that what makes Harry Potter so popular is its setting.
If you’ve read one of the Harry Potter books, then you know what Hogwarts looks like. In your mind you know exactly where the Gryffindor common room is, what the doors to the dining hall look like, which direction Dumbledore’s office is facing, etc. You might not be able to draw a functional map of it, and your ideas of where everything is might not match J.K. Rowling’s ideas at all, but the point is that you have a very vivid mental picture of Harry Potter’s primary setting, and in your imaginings during History class or a work meeting you could follow all the characters up and down stairs, across courtyards, through fields, etc., making up new stories and events for them.
The Setting is the playground of the book. If you have a clear idea of your setting, and fully understand the different elements in it, then you could take your book in any direction you wanted. You might go off in several direction before you actually decide on one, all because it’s so easy to think up new scenarios for your characters.
In the Antebellum series, I have very clear, very vivid ideas about the homes and cities of my characters. It’s not hard at all to go there in my mind and hang out with my characters, watching them go about their daily lives. I could lead them into any situation I wanted, and I know exactly where they would stand and what objects would be around them. It’s like a computer game, but for your mind.
I feel very confidently that you can move about the rooms of your favorite books with the same amount of ease. I am also sure that you, like me, run into serious problems when you can’t envision exactly where your characters are.
The realization of the importance of setting came to me very recently as I was working on what I hope will become my newest novel. It involves time travel, and primarily five settings: two houses, an apartment, and two towns. My problem is that I have no idea what any of these places look like. It’s not a matter of research, it’s a matter of orienting myself to their world. What direction do these houses face? When you come through the front door, are you greeted with a staircase, a kitchen, or a reception area? What floor is the apartment on? Is it near a library, a supermarket, or the ghetto, or all three?
Until I figure out the world through my characters’ eyes, I cannot connect with them. I feel lost when I write them; it’s the same feeling as when you take your already-well-known characters and move them into a new setting. You’ll notice it with books sometimes; for just a scene the author will move their characters into a setting completely different than those we visit in the rest of the novel. If the author doesn’t have a clear idea of what that setting looks like, it comes across in their writing, and one of my senses goes dark. I can’t see what the characters are doing anymore. I can hear them, yes, and feel what they’re touching, but my sight is gone until they return to areas I’m more familiar with.
Even though I signed up for NaNoWriMo last month, as soon as I realized my setting predicament I stopped working on the story. I refuse to go back to my novel until I know exactly how to move about the rooms and worlds of my characters. Otherwise I’ll just be stuck in the same spot, flailing around in the dark, offering description and movement but no insight. I can’t make my plot develop if I don’t know what direction my characters are heading next.
Realizing the importance of setting explained for me why some earlier attempts at novels never went anywhere; I had one room, or one piece of scenery, cast out into the void like an island.
How do you pick a setting? Some stories you work on might not come with their settings magically imprinted into your head. Sometimes you might have to work at it, and in that case, I find it helpful to have something to base your setting off of. I recommend the following sources for finding settings:
1. Flickr (or other photo-storage sites). Flickr has this awesome feature when you search for photographs; you can specify your results by ‘most recent,’ ‘most relevant,’ or my favorite, ‘most interesting.’ I’ve found some gorgeous photos of scenes I wanted by doing a ‘most interesting’ search on Flickr.
How it worked for me: I got some really inspiring images for Go Look There involving butterflies that really captured the mood I was going for.
2. Icon Communities. You have to be on livejournal for this one. Livejournal has some awesome communities where people create and share icons. My favorite is gaffe; it shows beautiful, artistic, high-fashion icons, a lot of which remind me of my characters or specific scenes and give me something to start with in order to imagine a new world. Gaffe is often the spark that lights my setting fire (yeah, I totally went there). Icons and conceptual art are also good if you’re writing a story that doesn’t take place in modern times, or even on Earth.
How it worked for me: I based the North Hall building in Antebellum off of an icon I saw once. Icons were also very instrumental in designing some of my characters, like Laina, Charoleen, and Mercoush (I saw a conceptual picture of a black man meditating with a chain around his head and knew what Mercoush had to look like), and also helped pick the outfit style in the North Hall.
3. City Websites. Want to set your story in a city or part of the world you’ve never visited? Visit that city’s website to get a feel for their building style, any landmarks you should be aware of, etc.
How it worked for me: I researched various towns in upstate New York for help with my comedy novel Of Coffee and People.
4. Relevant movies/television. It sounds silly, but you can learn a lot about cities you’ve never been to by watching movies or television shows that were actually filmed there. This really only works for the big cities, though, unless you know of a movie whose small-town setting matches the feel you want for your book.
How it worked for me: I based a beach house and surrounding town in my potential new novel off of ones in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and various episodes of Sex and the City, and several spy/action movies set in Africa or the Middle East for the introduction to A Clear and Beautiful Lie. Minority Report also helped give me a basis for the technology level in ACABL.
Personally, I think settings are half the fun of writing; the stage upon which your characters get to act. Your setting can be anything you want it to be, in a way that real towns never can.
So good luck, happy writing, and may all your settings be complete.
-Savannah J. Foley
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com