Thursday, March 18, 2010

Musings on setting

In between the chaos that seems to have descended upon my household (ear infections and a poor husband who is so busy with work he's now referred to around here as "the ghost who walks") I’m still working on revisions. Lately, I’ve been considering my book's setting.

My story is set in nineteenth century Paris (and a couple of other places, but mainly Paris.) It’s a fabulous city to work with as a backdrop to my story; indulge me, a moment ….

We have the grand boulevards such as the Avenue de Champs-Elysees ...

The sprawling park on the western edge of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne;
The fetid back streets and slums of the nineteenth century;
And, best of all, deep beneath the city streets we have the Catacombs, created in 1786 when the overflowing graveyard, the Cimetiere des Innocents, had to be emptied.

So much to work with! But therein lies two issues.

First, what I call "the travel guide syndrome".

Last year I read a book by a favourite author, and while the book is good, it is not her best. IMO this is down to the fact her descriptions of the setting of her story – nineteenth century Turkey – go on and on and on. And on. She was obviously enamoured with the place, but IMO it got in the way of her story. I started to skim the (many) passages of description to get to the meat of the story; or I’d lose interest altogether and put the book down. Not the reaction you want to evoke in your readers!

The problem is that some writers - and I’ve been guilty of this - can be obsessed about including in their book every little shiny, sparkly detail about a place they’ve fallen in love with; essentially, their love affair with a city or landscape renders them unable to judge what is truly necessary to include for the sake of the STORY. And when this happens, it bogs … the ... whole … book ... down … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ....

Don’t get me wrong; a healthy dose of accuracy and detail is needed when it comes to setting. But what you choose to include, and how and when to use it in your story, calls for careful judgment and an objective eye, otherwise you run the risk of your novel sounding like a travel guide, and putting your reader into a coma.

This leads to another issue about setting – how far should you go with being accurate about it? And are settings more accurately evoked when a writer has actually been to them - walked the streets, breathed the air, seen the sights?

See, I’ve never been to Paris. Many writers take trips to research their settings, and while I would wet my pants if given the chance to go to Paris, it’s just not going to happen. But I wonder – would my book be better if I robbed a bank, hopped on the next flight to Paris and spent a month absorbing the details and the atmosphere of the City of Light like a sponge?

I’d argue yes – and no.

“Yes”, in that being able to see and hear and inhale my setting could not possibly hurt in the slightest, and would be a quick and intensive way in which to steep myself in the atmosphere of all things Parisian in the hope it will flow out on to my page.

But also, “no”. I write historical fiction; my book is set in 1864, and unless someone invents a functioning time machine I can never, ever, visit the true setting of my book. Ever. And I find that this is actually a positive. It means I’m free to do what we writers love best of all – use our imaginations. A level of accuracy is required with setting, absolutely - readers need to feel you have a handle on the backdrop to your story or they won’t find anything you write to be credible - but you don’t have to be anal. IMO, choosing some specifics and getting them right – major (and easily checkable) things such as the names of roads, directions, seasonal changes, well-known land marks – gives your reader a solid foundation of place, from which you can leap off and … well, fake it.

Where my story has needed it, I’ve invented twisting alleys, imposing mansions, brothels and gambling dens, crumbling tenements, theatres, churches ... none of which exist anywhere but inside my head. IMO there’s nothing wrong with massaging a city or a town or a landscape to fit your story - we’re writing FICTION, people, and there’s an understanding that not everything on the page is factually correct (and there’s always the Author’s Notes to address any lingering misapprehensions (g)). And at the end of the day, doing what best serves your story is all important.

But to pull of this fakery you first need to have absorbed all you can about your setting, so you know where you can successfully bend the rules and where you simply can’t … and since I’ve rambled on long enough, how you do just that will be the subject of another post. But for now, when it comes to setting, use it as a tool to aid in the telling of your story without bludgeoning your readers with it, and don’t be afraid to make up a version all of your own. IMO, that’s one of the very best parts of writing fiction.

So, what settings have you used in your books, and how much of your setting have you invented?


  1. "But to pull of this fakery you first need to have absorbed all you can about your setting, so you know where you can successfully bend the rules and where you simply can’t" - I agree! And it goes for time periods too, knowing what sorts of lamps (electric, oil, gas, candle) you can have, for instance. So far I've had books set in: the island of Capri (about which I knew nothing, but all I used was a hotel and a beach anyway), Stockholm and Halmstad (about which I knew less than nothing, but all I had was a recording studio and two apartments anyway - could have been Anytown, USA for all the reader might have known!), small town British Columbia, and so on. Then there was Griffintown in Montreal in the 1920s, Ephesus and Rome in AD 43 and now all over Spain, France, Turkey in 1492. For the last three I did/am doing piles of research, and have tried to be as accurate as possible in terms of town layout, which buildings were already there, seasons, everything. For Austin's story, I think I even checked the possible moon phases, and I'll probably do the same for Rose - there's a great website for that, if I can find it again.
    But I'll invent or move stuff if needed - I had to have the library of Celsus in Ephesus, so I moved it up about 50 years :-)

  2. Deniz, your stories sure do get around! It's a great way to travel, isn't it? (g)