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Monday, February 10, 2014

Choosing Settings in Fiction

By Shobhan Bantwal

Could your setting make or break your novel?
If the settings in fiction books could talk they would have plenty to say about themselves. They could also speak out in their own defense if an author has not researched them well or has given erroneous information. And yet, despite their inability to literally talk, settings do make a clear statement in each and every book.

Whether your story occurs here on earth or some imaginary place, setting will undoubtedly play a major role in how readers react to your story.

Why choose a unique setting?
Setting is as vital to a story as the characters and the plot. No one lives in a vacuum, not even fictional people. The characters' lives revolve around the rhythm and pulse of the town or city they reside in. In that sense, the backdrop takes on a life of its own and becomes yet another character in the story.

Editors and literary agents alike seem to agree that unusual settings are worth seeking out in the thousands of manuscripts they are inundated with year after year. A book's setting could make the difference between a sale and no-sale for a debut author.

One of the reasons my agent, the late Elaine Koster (Koster Literary Agency) signed me on back in 2005 was because she loved my debut book's (THE DOWRY BRIDE) setting: a small, fictional town in southwestern India, full of political conflict, community spirit, cultural contradictions, and natural beauty. 

Utopia or Dystopia
New authors may want everything in their books to be picture-perfect. Nonetheless, to be realistic, just like characters, a setting needs to have its imperfections exposed along with its assets. It is the author's creativity and expert treatment of the background that makes the difference between ordinary and stunning.

While it is hard to envision a dysfunctional or dismal world as a setting for a good story, many famous writers have made dystopian backgrounds work brilliantly for them. William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are highly successful older dystopian novels that have the set the tone for more recent authors like Terry Brooks, who published Armageddon's Children in 2007.

Building your extraordinary world
The age-old adage, "write what you know" is often the best advice in choosing a setting. However, the challenge of picking and researching an unfamiliar place may be exactly what an author needs to get those creative juices flowing.

Nevertheless, research is still the number one rule for success in terms of credibility and authenticity of settings. The characters need to fit into their environment like peas inside a pod.

Research today is so much simpler. Almost every city in the free world seems to have a website, with information on its geography, history, ecology, points of interest, demographics, and economic data.

No matter what kind of setting one chooses, it is necessary to do some homework first. Yes, it requires work, but it can pay rich dividends later.

Location involves culture
Culture is an integral part of a book's setting. The residents, the language, the cuisine, the dress, the traditions—they all come together to form the background for a riveting piece of fiction. To make a story credible, it is vital to stay true to the uniqueness of the community.

Setting is one element in fiction that can stretch as far and as wide as your imagination can take you. The sky is literally the limit, as evidenced by the popularity of sci-fi novels. You can pick almost any corner of the solar system and make it a memorable backdrop for your stories.

Does unusual setting equal success?
Literary success is never a guarantee, even if all the elements in a book are outstanding. Why? Because success is based on multiple and complex factors, only one of them being setting.

Unusual settings do not always lead to greatness either. On the other hand, the success rate in capturing the attention of an editor or agent can be high when it comes to extraordinary backdrops, something worth keeping in mind. Besides, choosing a location and making it work can be one of the most creatively fulfilling aspects of fiction writing.

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1 comment:

Judith Ashley said...

Shobhan, lots to think about in I go through my final edits, I'll keep your points in mind. Thank you for a thoughtful and well-thought-out post.