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Location, Location, Location: The Fundamentals of Choosing a Setting

sunshineboi94 asked: How important is location to a story? I’m asking about specific location, not setting. I know landscape, climate, and environment can all be important details but is it necessary to give an exact location to your story? Personally, I feel like it makes it less relatable, but I could benefit from some outside opinion. Also, if you are to give it a location does it have to be a real place? Not a fantasyland but a fake place such as Mayberry?

Figuring out your setting is a little frightening; it can often feel like you’re locking yourself into a decision. Location details are important as they often inform your plot and characters and create the story’s backdrop, so it’s worth it to explore this topic.

Whether or not you decide to use a “real place” (such as New York City) or a fictional place (such as Fictionville) is a complicated decision, so here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, let’s talk about the advantages of real locations.

  • No world-building required. New York already exists. In this circumstance, you don’t have to worry about laying out an entire location. This gives you liberty in the sense that you can spend energy and time on other parts of your story, but it has limitations that will be explored later in this article.
  • Strong cultural roots. As something of an extension of the world-building point, when you use a place that really exists, all of the information about that point is at your fingertips. This means research, but it also means that nothing can slip through the cracks. If you want to refer to something in your story, you can refer to it without having to think of its world-building ramifications. For example, if your characters decide to go see a musical, you can research whether or not the town in which your story takes place has a theater, as opposed to having to ask yourself, “would this town that I’m inventing logically have a theater?”
  • Name recognition. Everybody knows about New York. If your story takes place in New York, they know what that means and they probably know about it on some level. Using it as your location will allow all of the reader’s knowledge about the place to fill in the setting. This is not, however, an excuse to not use strong details in terms of your setting. (We will talk about details in a jiffy).

Now that we’ve gone over some of the more general advantages to working with a real location, here are a few things to keep in mind while doing so:

  • Get it right. This means research. Even if you live in this place, it means research. Misrepresenting a place, whether it’s a matter of geography, culture, or something in between, is a travesty and will be a failure in your story. Make sure, when you include a detail or piece of information, that it makes sense, is credible, and contributes to the image of the place that you are trying to express.
  • Go to there! The best way to research is to experience the location. Look around for concrete details: what do the buildings look like, how do people get around, what sort of slang do they use, what are the more interesting or prevalent aspects of the culture. Of course, research is critical in representing a place accurately, and the most accurate way of research is going there and learning about it first-hand.
  • Understand the culture. If you cannot visit the place for whatever reason, find resources. Use the Internet, books, film, television, and anything you can get your hands on. Try to immerse yourself in the place as best as you can. Looking something up on Wikipedia is cool, but not enough. Listen to music that came out of that place. Read the books. Watch the films, the local news, the sports teams. Check the weather. Talk to the people. Get primary sources. Get to the heart of that place’s culture.
  • Google Maps. Even if you live in a place, you can still mess up. It happens all the time. Which side of the street is that café on? Are you positive? Completely? Might as well check. Google Maps (especially street view) is a resource to which writers of older generations did not have access. Take advantage of it. Also make use atlases, maps, and anything that can clear up any geographical confusion. There’s no reason to make a mistake in the age when everything is instantly knowable.
  • Be convincing. Now that you have all of this information, you have to write it in a way that builds the place for the reader. They haven’t done the research that you have, and so it is your responsibility to create the world as you know it. There are a couple of ways to go about this:
    • Use concrete detail. Show them the place. Giving strong sensory detail is the best way to get readers involved and interested in a place with which they’re unfamiliar. If the reader is familiar with the place, using concrete details will make them feel like they know what’s going on and they’ll feel that you are portraying it accurately.
    • Use dialect. What do these people call a long sandwich? Is it a sub, a hoagie, a hero? Getting in touch with vernacular can make or break how convincing your story is. Dialogue should blend in with landscape; make it convincing. A misplaced slang word can throw off your reader’s sense of place. Be careful.
      In this vein, here is a helpful article regarding writing accents in a story.
    • Let the story fit. Stories aren’t built for every setting. Setting is a living part of the story that interacts with characters, plot, and everything else that goes on the page. If your story does not make sense in your chosen setting, choose a different setting or choose a different story. A disconnect between those two ideas will cause a collapse.

Now that we’ve explored real settings in some depth, let’s take a look at fictional settings. First: why use one?

  • You are in total control. Nothing shows up without your consent. You can construct anything and put it in your story, as long as it doesn’t feel too far-fetched (and even if it does!). If you need to include a boarding school, or a café, or a societal norm or value, then you don’t have to worry if such an institution already exists, because your place is fictional.
  • The research is all on you. If you don’t understand the Subway system, for example, you might have to do a lot of research if you’re writing a story that takes place in New York. If you’re building your own place, you can design whatever public transportation system that you like, which runs on your characters’ schedules. Perks. By not having to conform to a real place, you don’t have to worry about your story being an accurate representation of anything.
    This does not preclude the fact that your story should be realistic in terms of how certain kinds of places operate. If Fictionville is a rural area with a population in the low hundreds, you still need to make sure that you are accurately portraying that kind of place.

There are a few things to focus on while developing Fictionville:

  • World-build. Even if you are not writing fantasy, any created fictional place should be planned well. Treat it like you have to create a universe from scratch, because you basically are. The more fully you think about Fictionville and the more you understand its history, culture, and people, the richer it will come across on the page. Here’s an article on the basics of world-building. Applying its principles to your own place will be helpful. 
  • Understand geography. You don’t have to make a map, but you should know the ins and outs of your town on a geographic level. If making a map would help you, do it, but you should at least know how large Fictionville is, how many people live there, what is located in what place, how to people get from one place to the next, etc., so that you do not make logistical errors in your story.
  • Place it. If applicable, try placing Fictionville somewhere in the real world. Maybe it’s in northern Ohio, or just outside of London. This, like many aspects of the planning and development process, does not have to be included in the narrative itself, but will help give Fictionville cultural roots.

Finally, some general remarks about writing any kind of setting.

  • Use concrete details to your advantage. Your setting, no matter where it is, will live or die by the details you use. You do not have to describe every element of a setting, but using certain ones that trigger the sense can familiarize readers with the location. This is a somewhat lengthy post on detail that includes a section on setting in the middle.
  • Assume unfamiliarity. Writing your story with the assumption that the reader has never seen your setting in person forces to you try even harder to bring it to life. Knowing that the reader is unfamiliar can make it daunting and difficult to write setting, but this notion should motivate you to represent the place as faithfully and richly as possible.
  • Bus schedules aren’t enough. There are two sides to setting: logistics and soul. If a character gets on a specific bus route, it’s probably a good idea to research if such a bus actually exists, but this is only one side of writing about setting. The part that is infinitely harder is understanding the spirit of a location, what makes it tick, what motivates its citizens, and how this culture matches your story. Whether your place is real or made-up, this will be your greatest challenge in writing setting.

And so, which one should you pick? Like always, there is no single, correct way to write something. Hopefully this article explained some of the advantages and requirements of either writing about a real place or a fictional one. At the end, the reader should not be able to tell.

Further Reading:

Favorite Books for Real Settings:

  • Dubliners by James Joyce (for Dublin)
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (for the American West)
  • Typee by Herman Melville (for Nuku Hiva)

Favorite Books for Fictional Settings:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (for Maycomb, Alabama)
  • The Harry Potter Series (for Hogwarts)
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike (for Mt. Judge, Pennsylvania)

We appreciate the question; if you have any queries, comments, or concerns about this post or writing in general, please send us a message via our ask box!

- O