Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts on Settings

Settings are one of the foundations of novels -- along with characters, themes, plots, etc. -- and yet I'd say it's one of the most flexible of those foundations.

I'm going to use YA novels as examples because, let's face it, that's what I'm into.

In some novels, setting isn't so important. A lot of YA novels have this typical suburban setting. It's Every Town, USA. These kinds of settings remind me of the cartoon Fairly OddParents, which takes place in Townsville. How much more generic can you get? Often these settings illustrate a very teenage way of thinking: all suburban dwellings are the same and cookie-cutter-ness is bad and it doesn't matter where exactly the book takes place because it could be anywhere and it doesn't really matter anyway because suburbia crushes souls. In these kinds of settings, the universalness (or flat-out genericness) is emphasized.

In other novels, setting is paramount. This story could only take place in this town. Instead of the generic aspects of the town being emphasized, the author draws our attention to the specifics. It's kind of a cliché, but really, in some novels, the setting is like another character.

There are pros and cons to both types of settings, of course, and examples in which each is effective. Courtney Summers' books have generic suburbia settings, as does Barry Lyga's The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, but it doesn't take away from the awesomeness of those books. The settings just aren't focuses. On the other hand, just try to imagine Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard and Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma without their settings... impossible. Their settings are so well-drawn, so specific and beautifully described, that they would be entirely different stories if they were set anywhere else.

I, as a writer, have gone both ways. I've written a few books where the settings were pretty much inconsequential. You could set the novel in your own hometown in your head, if you wanted to.

But these days, I've been thinking a lot about what type of writer I want to be, now and in the future, and I've decided that I want to be a very setting-specific writer. I want to set my stories in real places that you could actually go to. I love it when stories have that element. Knowing that, if I wanted to, I could get in my car and drive to Forks, Washington in just a few hours is really cool, and makes reading setting-specific stories so much fun. I want readers of my work to have that element of "this place really exists" that I find so exciting.

I want to be a writer of one setting in particular: Vancouver and its surrounding towns. I've lived here my whole life, I love this place, and I want to share some of its awesome with readers from around the world. I grew up (and still live) in Squamish, a small town outside of Vancouver, and my current WIP takes place there. I've found that I have much more fun writing real places than made-up places.

This way, instead of trying to keep a made-up town layout in my head, I can just plunk my characters down on Cottonwood Road, a three-minute walk from my house, and know exactly where they are, what the place looks like, what it feels like. When I mention a character's house, I know which house it is (and in some cases, I know who currently lives there). I can set the scene in vivid, true-to-life detail, and I know that the book benefits from it.

I'll cap this post here, but I have more thoughts on settings. Stay tuned...


  1. Squamish! I've only passed through there to whistler. I think setting a book in downtown Vancouver would be pretty awesome because I feel if you write about the 'burbs of Vancity, it's basically gonna end up as everytown and relevant only to the author, you know? but if you have specific Vancouver-centric things, it would be so neat, and I'd love to see more books like that :) Great post! I really like books that have a setting that matters, just thinking of Like Mandarin and even Beautiful Creatures.

  2. I guess every writers take on setting is different. Although, I have to agree with Audrey, I do really love the examples you used. What drew to those books in the first place were their beautiful settings. :)

    I guess, unlike you, I'm a chicken when it comes to using towns that already exist especially if I've never been there before. I always think that if said novel is published someone, somewhere will be able to call my bluff. Not to mention, constantly writing about NYC, as glamorous as it seems, can get boring. I love being able to create everything from scratch, from shops to landscapes, you name it.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. You are a great writer. :)

  3. @Audrey: Whaaaat, you've driven through here? That's awesome! Vancouver/Squamish/Whistler is an awesome area. Love it here.

    @Tracey: Thank you :) I also like to create things from scratch sometimes. Half of my novel, FAKE, takes place in Arkansas, and I've never been anywhere near there. I made up a fictional town and relied on Google Earth for research and geography and stuff. I found it hard to keep everything I'd created straight!

  4. I do agree that there are pros and cons to Lands of Make Believe and true cities. I'm fond of cities when they characterize a story. Like when the story has southern small town feel and it's set somewhere in AL, or in NYC when certain landmarks are necessary.
    But sometimes I don't feel a connection to cities vastly unfamiliar(esp. when specific places are the focus) and often suburbia--even with a generic name--is relateable. And I guess that's what's important to me when I read and when others read my books. Good post.

  5. SWEET. I've been thinking about setting a lot lately. I feel like many authors, as they try to speed up the action and reduce the static, are tossing their descriptions of setting out the window. As a reader, I can't stand it! I feel like my characters are just kind of floating around a very barren set when this happens. I've been planning a post on this problem, and yours sets up another angle to look at things from. Thanks.

  6. Great post. I love it when a book has a strong setting - as long as it's not overdone. For example, The Power of One. Now before you scream at me, I loved that book, I really did. But there were paragraphs and paragraphs of description that I skipped because there was just too much of it. Everything in moderation, I say.

    With my current book, it's set in Brisbane Australia (where I currently live), but within that, there are fictional cafes, clubs etc. Something I've struggled with in terms of setting is having 'bad things' happen in real places. For example, I have a scene where my girl character is assaulted after getting drunk. Originally, I had the club where this happens as an actual club that exists in Brisbane, but then I started to worry whether that kind of thing could get me in trouble legally. Do you have any thoughts/knowledge about such conundrums?

  7. Great post! We enjoy all kinds of books -- generic settings, specific settings, made-up settings. It all has to serve the story, though. We also like the mix of specific and made-up (like Hogwarts and London, in Harry Potter).

  8. When I wrote my last book, I made the setting a character, but it wasn't based on a real place. Hearing you talk about how neat it is/would be to go to the actual places and walk around makes me itching to write about my own place. Maybe I'll set my next novel here. I hadn't focused on using the setting as a focal point, but you make good reasons to do such. Great post!