Never underestimate the importance of setting in your novel.
Setting is a great deal more than simply the place where your story happens. Used to maximum advantage, the setting will enhance your characters and the plot while enriching the readers’ experience. There are likely to be scenes taking place in several settings within each novel. Consider the following aspects of the ‘where’ and ‘when’.
- Location. Depending on the genre, this might be Earth, another planet or a fantasy world. Homing in you can choose a country, a county, a town or a village. It may be a specific or an imaginary place: A school, a clifftop house, a farm or a mansion.
- Geographical influences. This relates to the lie of the land and the effect it might have upon your characters. Your hero might have to climb a mountain, wade across a river in full spate or simply gaze out of his window at moorland or the sea.
- Atmosphere The mood of a setting will be influenced by its geography: a barren mountainside may be exciting to one character or a terrifying challenge to another. Your heroine may long to soak up the sun on a beach at St Tropez while another might find it uncomfortably hot and boring. A haunted mansion will portray a completely different atmosphere from a cottage by the sea.
- Climate It’s important to research unfamiliar places because the geography will influence the climate: land masses, large bodies of water, mountains, waterways and prevailing winds. Harsh climates can engender a different kind of person than one who comes from a tropical climate.
- Weather This will influence a character’s mood. Harnessing the weather is great for building atmosphere but take care not to make this a cliché, eg, ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’
- Era Contemporary, historical or set in the future. Important historical events might engender novels such as a spy story set in WWII, a tale of treachery and politics at the court of Henry VIII or a tragic love story set during the French Revolution.
- Time of day Dawn, dusk, the heat of the midday sun or a chilly night will all evoke different atmospheres.
- Time of year Choose the season carefully and you can draw upon your readers’ emotional responses to evocative times such as Christmas, summer holidays or the anniversary of a significant event.
- The passage of time It’s important to keep track of scenes so that all the events of the story work together. You don’t want to confuse the reader with a pregnancy that lasts for eleven months or your hero arriving at a destination before he left. Be careful with flashbacks and make it clear when time has elapsed during a long journey.
- Social environment. The social, cultural and political environment will shape your characters. This will vary from country to country, the north to the south and from the city to a rural village. It’s particularly important in historical fiction, where attitudes to slavery or rights for women may be shocking by today’s politically correct thinking. The social environment may also influence patterns of speech.
- Details. Carefully researched details of a setting will add authenticity to your story. Using all the senses to describe not only the look of a place but the smell of the river, the feel of the sand under bare feet, the sound of the sheep on the hill or the taste of a local cheese, will bring your setting vividly to life.
The right setting is a vital part of a successful novel. Spend time in developing your settings so that they colour your writing with atmosphere, influence the way your characters react to events, the choices they make and even how they speak. Remember that the setting for your novel isn’t only its geographical location but that it forms a rich and vivid picture of the world your characters inhabit.