Eudora Welty (1909 – 2001), writer of stories set in the American South, famously said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place.”
This is true. The setting of a story determines the plot and shapes the characters. Would Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for example, have developed her keen sense of evil if she lived in London rather than the village of St. Mary Mead? Could George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret exist anywhere other than mid-twentieth-century Paris?
Setting has often been described as another character in the novel. Think of the Bates Motel in Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Or the Transylvanian countryside in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The setting of a novel is a physical world created by the author with sights, sounds, smells, textures, and colors. Setting is a picture painted with the medium of language. In modern fiction the brush strokes tend to be layered lightly, allowing the imagination of the reader to fill in the blanks.
In general, there are three kinds of setting in fiction.
1. Imaginary: Sometimes (as in fantasy) the world of the novel is created out of whole cloth, bearing little resemblance to the world in which we live. In this case, the author must give readers the “rules”—i.e., the way things work in that world. Is gravity a factor as it is on earth? Is the atmosphere air or water? The setting of the imaginary world can help the protagonist or hinder him.
2. Fictional: Sometimes the setting of a novel is fictional but very much like a place the reader knows or could know. The setting of my mystery, The Secret of Lanark Island, for example, doesn’t exist but very well could. The benefit of a fictional setting is that the author is free to paint in rivers or mountains or castles or trailer parks—whatever works to serve the story.
3. Real: Some novels are set in real places like Stockholm, Sweden, or Savannah, Georgia, or Quebec, Canada. When the setting is a real place, the author must work hard to get the details right. For example, if your main character, a New York City detective, is driving north on Second Avenue, he’s going the wrong way on a one-way street. Mistakes will be noticed and angry emails received. Thank goodness for Google maps!
Place is important in real life, too. Yesterday I drove eleven hours from the city where I live most of the year to a cottage on a lake where I will write full-time for two months. It’s not that I can’t write at home (I do), but I write more easily here. Why? Is it a case of fewer distractions or is it the lake that I see from my computer desk? I don’t know, but my goal this summer is to finish what I fondly call my “final revision.” Then, let the query process begin! Now that really is an unknown land.