Welcome to the 4th part of our series on how to write fiction without the fuss. (Click here to see Part 1, click here to see Part 2, and click here to see Part 3.)
Writing fiction doesn’t need to be torturous or difficult. In this series of articles novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher shows you how to do it easily and well.
Get your setting right
Along with plot, character, style and theme, the setting is a key element in a piece of fiction. Authors and critics have called a novel’s setting a ‘character in its own right’ and, while it doesn’t have to play a dynamic role in every story, without a realistic and specific backdrop your characters will seem pallid and amorphous and your plot will lack credibility.
Consider just three classic writers and what their novels would be like without their settings: Charles Dickens, Armistead Maupin and JK Rowling. The stories of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist would be hollow without the backdrop and context of 19th century London; San Francisco rightly takes top billing in the title of Tales of the City; and the imaginary world of Hogwarts School creates magic for the reader in more than the obvious sense.
So what do these three – and all other successful – authors include in their settings to make them so involving?
Firstly, whether they are ‘real’ or fantastical, each of their fictional worlds is highly specific. Just as they know their characters inside out, the authors bring detailed knowledge and description of the places their characters move through.
Setting is not, though, just about location. It is also about historical period and the society, ethos and culture that pertain to that time. They are how we understand the way characters think and behave, and the factors that drive them. Dickens’ period characters do not share the moral outlook – or indeed dialogue style – of Maupin’s ‘70s hippies.
Other aspects of your setting that influence plot and characters are its geography and/or architecture and decor, social class, weather, season and time of day. These can be used to underline, or counterpoint, narrative moods and can provide metaphorical resonance for your theme.
If your entire novel or short story is set in one location, your job may be simpler than if you choose multiple locations for different plot elements. Your work will be different, too, if your setting is contemporary rather than historical: in either case you may already know or be able to visit the district, or you will need to do the appropriate research to bring it to life for readers (who may know the place or time themselves and won’t appreciate errors).
A totally invented world will need all the elements mentioned above – though it might, like Harry Potter, overlap with and provide a commentary on the world we know. If you are creating an imagined setting, the most important thing to remember is consistency. The environments need to be meticulously thought through in every detail, even if they don’t all appear in the story, and to remain coherent from start to finish.
To help you do this, open a new section in your fiction ‘bible’ called Settings and head a page for each location. Make sub-headings for:
Environment – make notes on the landscape or cityscape: the natural geography, buildings – exterior and interior, layout of streets or countryside, wildlife, human inhabitants, social class… You might want to consider how these settings affect your characters – do they brutalise or sensitise; do they love or hate their environments? Use all four senses to fully imagine and describe your environment.
Period and Context – even if your setting is contemporary or imagined, take the time to identify the current social and political attitudes. Think about gender positions, outlook on the issues of your story, real life events, methods of transport and communication. If you are writing in multiple time schemes, you will need a heading for each, comparing and contrasting important aspects.
Season – clarify the time(s) of year that your story takes place, how this impacts on the landscape and the action, reflects or adds irony to your characters’ feelings. Make notes on specific weather conditions you could use; months, days of the week, times of day that your plot makes use of and the effect they might have.
Research – what is missing from the above that you need to know, and where will you find it? It might be tiny details or a major exploration that needs to be undertaken to fill the gaps.
If there are aspects specific to the settings in your story that require more examination – particularly if you are inventing a new world – add other headings.
Next week we’ll discuss the themes in your work of fiction.
Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus Lucy’s novels here