Saturday, January 29, 2011

Where in the World?

Setting, or milieu (don’t you love that word?), is the environment or physical time and place in which a story takes place. Exotic locales start me dreaming—my imagination goes into overdrive. I spent a few months in Mexico and always wanted to set a story there.
Pat Conroy’s novels have a powerful sense of place. Appalachia is almost another character in Vicki Lane’s books, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone could only have happened in that isolated mountain area.
Setting provides a backdrop and color. Streets, buildings, restaurants, or some wild, rugged terrain—it all depends on your story and what you want to happen. Most people write what they know or have a good chance of finding out. I wouldn’t set a book in Alaska because I doubt if I could get enough of a feeling for it from books (even Dana Stabenow’s rich and beautiful novels) and movies or the Internet but I could set one in Atlanta or most towns in the South even though I may not have been there.
These days, if you chose a place you’re not familiar with, you can easily find pictures and information about restaurants, streets, businesses, and places of interest, but if you can find someone who’s spent time there, maybe they’ll help. I’ve found many people willing to share their impressions. They may be able to add some details you wouldn’t otherwise find, such as smells, sounds, whether it’s windy or the air is visibly polluted.
How does it influence you? Do you have a sudden hunger to read something with a particular setting? Or does finding some special place set off bells in your head? 


Polly said...

Even though I haven't lived in Boston for decades, most of my books are set there. Why? There's a feeling of comfort. I have set stories where I live now in SC, but the premise is more contained, more insular. The city isn't a character in the story. With Boston, it always is.

Ellis Vidler said...

Mine are mostly in SC, but I have one in the Williamsburg, VA, area and one that at least starts in Mexico. The setting makes a big difference to what I write and where the story goes.

VR Barkowski said...

I attempted to set a story in New Orleans, a city I love and have visited many, many times, but it felt wrong. I ended up changing the setting to San Francisco, where I was living at the time. I could feel the city's energy, and I frequently visited locales to check on details. This became a tiny bit problematic after I move to Atlanta with a half finished manuscript set in SF. Whoops.

Ellis Vidler said...

Viva, maybe you can find someone in SF who'll check things or give you impressions or photos. And there's always Google maps street view. I love that, walking down the street and looking at the houses or shops.

Ruby Johnson said...

I grew up in S.C., but I've lived in Texas for over 20 years. When I go back to visit relatives in Charleston, I cannot believe how it's changed. I agree with you. Placing a city in your novel that you haven't visited almost requires getting "inside" information from a native.
Ruby Johnson

Ellis Vidler said...

Ruby, my WIP is set in and around Charleston. I go there once in a while just to check things--it's a good excuse to visit my favorite city. BTW, I lived in Texas for a year, but I was about 8 or 9. All I remember is how hot Houston was.