Hi, SE Readers. Joan here today to talk about settings and making them realistic.
Lots of things occur behind the scenes before an author published a novel. Whether the writer is a planner or a panster, he or she must decide a few things such as genre, character names, and premise before beginning to write the words.
An author must decide on the setting. Is the book set in England during the 1700s, or the nineteenth century American West? For the sake of this post, let’s say I want to write a novel set in twenty-first century America.
Okay, that narrows the time frame but where in America? New York City? North Carolina? Arizona? Whatever place I choose, I need to familiarize myself with the area to create a realistic setting. In other words, research!
Consider this scenario:
Allison stepped onto the patio, enjoying the coolness of the desert southwest evening. Saguaro cacti were silhouetted against the sunset, and a roadrunner darted behind an agave plant. A cactus wren perched nearby. Allison walked further into the yard and stopped to stand beneath a giant magnolia tree…
What’s wrong with this picture? Saguaro cacti, roadrunners, agave plants, and cactus wrens are all common to the desert southwest. A magnolia tree is not. Write something like that, and you’ll lose your readers’ trust and ultimately damage our credibility as an author.
Unless it’s an area you are familiar with, to get the setting right requires some research on the part of the author.
For my Driscoll Lake series, I chose an area that I know like the back of my hand. Texas. The fictitious town of Driscoll Lake is based loosely on my hometown, so describing the scenes was easy. Friday night football games and marching bands are a part of life here.
Throughout the three books, several scenes occur in restaurants. To describe these places, I just close my eyes and picture our local Chili’s, a favorite Mexican restaurant, or local café. Easy.
When I wrote The Blue Moon Murders, I created another fictional town. The story was included in an anthology of western stories. Although I didn’t name the state, I had in mind northern New Mexico.
I have visited this area several times and am familiar with the landscape. When someone from my writer’s group said to me they pictured an area near Santa Fe, I knew I’d done something right.
Not all mistakes are physical. Let’s look at another possibility.
Hank looked around at the group of friends. “I want to thank yous for coming. Can I get you a soda?”
Nothing especially wrong with the sentence. Clearly, the author has used regional dialect in choosing the words youse and soda— everyday use if the character grew up or lives somewhere like New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
But in this book, Hank lives in Georgia. He would more likely say, “Thank y’all for coming. Can I get you a coke?”
Gold Wings is a time travel story in which a Navy Aviator is transported back to World War II. Not only did I have to do a lot of research about planes, aircraft carriers, and terminology, I researched American life in the early 1940s.
How much did a burger and shake cost? What movies were popular then? Which modern-day naval bases were in use in 1943?
The internet proved to be a valuable resource, and I learned much more about the Navy that I ever dreamed. My husband and I even traveled to Corpus Christi, Texas and toured the USS Lexington, a former carrier which is now a museum.
If you’re able to travel to the area where you want to set your book, I recommend it. Other than the visit to the Lex, I’ve yet to make such a trip. But doing so enables you to get a real feeling for the setting. Meeting and talking with locals helps you learn about area customs.
Research is more accessible these days because of the Internet, but a word of caution. Just because it’s there doesn’t make it right. It’s best to check several sources and/or websites. Wikipedia, while popular, isn’t always the most accurate source because anyone can post anything.
What methods to do you choose when researching your setting? Please share in the comments.