setting the scene in fiction
"Water is the driving force of all nature."
Leonardo da Vinci
As water is the underlying basis for everything that lives, so setting is to every story that breathes.
Everything has to happen somewhere.
How do authors choose where their stories will happen? ~shrug~ I can't speak for others, as we all have our different reasons for sticking our characters wherever we stick them. Generally, it's love: the love of history or love of a certain place we visited or love of the unknown. With me, it tends to be a mix of all three.
By now, I've lived in six states and two countries and have traveled a lot in between. I've also taken an incredible cultural psychology class that further emphasized how we are affected by where we live. In the words of Anais Nin, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Setting is not only a place; it's character. It's part of who our characters are and novelists who ignore that are missing a huge chance to fill in the depths of the story.
"Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, was born of the sea."
In my first-to-publish novel, Finishing Touches, Jenna is a small town Midwest girl raised nearly on the banks of the Illinois River. The river and trees surrounding it play a large part of her story, the trees being symbolic of her inner strength and deep roots and the river of her unbound soul that flows along where life takes her. There's also the little bridge mentioned that she crosses over, pausing to look down into the shallow creek. A bridge is a metaphor for crossing a boundary, for change, or for pulling the two different parts of her life together. In addition to the structural "place" of the story, being from the Midwest helps make Jenna who she is. As each country has its unique qualities that help define its people, so do different sections of countries. As a small town girl raised in the Midwest myself, I fully understand Jenna and have a special love for the people who tend to be very earthy and natural, and rather conservative in actions and speech. Although the story is not autobiographical, other than the searching issue, the setting is. My first novel has the most involved setting; it's the most interwoven with the main character.
When I first started writing the Rehearsal series in notes and scattered scenes and character development, I was still in that small Illinois town, but my thoughts were always wandering elsewhere. I wanted to go out and see new things, explore new places. I couldn't do it often at that time, but my characters did. As a result, they are more worldly than Jenna, all transplanted from the beginning of the story which makes the setting less woven into their characters. Two are from Pennsylvania, three from New Hampshire, one from the UK. The story is set in Massachusetts, roughly thirty miles from Boston. However, it takes them out of their adopted town often, into other places -- a metaphor for my own wanderlust.
Each of us "belongs" in a certain place. It may not be where we were raised. There may be some other place that calls out to us and helps us feel more settled once we're there. For me, that place was temporarily the Northeast and permanently the Mid-Atlantic. We lived in Massachusetts for some time and I adored the area, was sad to have to leave. At the same time, when we passed through Pennsylvania to go back to visit family in Illinois, it called to me, as it had during family vacations when I was young. And so, my two main characters from Rehearsal, Evan and Susie, had to be from Pennsylvania. I set them in the eastern part of the state so it would work better with the story, but put Evan's alma mater on the western edge. When putting him there, I never in the world expected to end up living so close to it.
My New Hampshire characters are supporting cast. I wanted them transplanted instead of being Massachusetts locals in order to give them that extra edge. Their personalities aren't MA personalities. It wouldn't have worked. I have yet to visit New Hampshire, so if anyone from the state wants to comment on whether they fit, I'd love to hear it! Of course, you'd have to read the book to find out.
"It is a curious sensation: the sort of pain that goes mercifully beyond our powers of feeling. When your heart is broken, your boats are burned: nothing matters any more. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace."
George Bernard Shaw
My newest book, Off The Moon, has two main settings: New York City and Bennington, Vermont. The main character is heavily in the music industry and so it worked well to have him in the midst of one of the music centers of the nation. His family is in Vermont, which worked in different ways: it's a short enough drive from NYC so he's able to run back and forth easily, it's another place I've yet to visit (love of the unknown), and it has a wonderful lake setting that's important to the story since he adores boats and owns a pontoon he uses to escape his busy city life. However, he grew up a military brat, so for him, place is very fluid and the lack of deep roots shows through his personality and his actions.
"My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine.
(Fortunately) everybody drinks water."
Setting is much more than just a backdrop. Or it should be. There should be a specific reason your characters are where they are or come from where they come from. It should affect them. They should have part of it within them. If you don't know why they are where they are, neither will your readers. Something will feel out of balance.
With the net, it's easy enough now to study details of any place you want your story set. If you don't, be warned that a reader from that place will call you on it.
“The Truth is you are a part and parcel of the great being. You are one of the cells of the Great Being, you can call it. And once a drop falls into an ocean, it becomes an ocean. And once you become the ocean, you see the whole world in a different way, and understand the whole world as a beautiful place of enjoyment.”
Carl Gustav Jung
Originally post on my official blog, complete with photos (lightly edited for this entry):