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Settings That Inspire

Monday, July 21, 2008

For the last couple of weeks, National Public Radio has been running a series in which they not only interview mystery/suspense authors, but they visit the cities that these authors have made iconic through their fiction. (See Crime in the City at NPR.) While I haven’t listened to all of the installments in the series (it’s usually on air as I’m running out of the house to try to make it to work on time), there is one thing I’ve noticed in common with those I have heard: the cities in question are all beloved by the authors who write about them.

Which (naturally) leads me to the question: do settings choose the author or do authors choose the setting?

It’s no secret that the setting of my three novels with Barbour are set in a fictional city in Louisiana that has been under development as a setting since 1992. How did it get started? Well, I needed to mask the fact that I was writing a fictional account of the lives of me and my friends from LSU. So I changed Baton Rouge to College Park (and later to Bonneterre) and I changed LSU to ULa (and recently to the University of Louisiana-Bonneterre, because who knew that during the years I would be using this setting, Louisiana would change the names of the smaller state colleges to the University of Louisiana system).

So why have I continued using this setting after all these years?

Well, for one thing, it’s easy. With so many years and stories set in a single setting, especially a fictional setting, I know this city. I know what the big social events are. I know where everything is. If I want to add a feature, I can. By not using Baton Rouge, where I spent every summer as a child and lived from 1989–1992, I’m not tapping into an existing culture nor being bound by a particular city’s real history or layout. Yes, it may be stretching some Louisianians’ imaginations that there’s a mid-size city buried somewhere in the middle of the state (especially for those who live in the middle of the state in Alexandria and surrounding areas). But the truth of the matter is that my experience with actually living in Louisiana is limited, even though I’m there at least once a year. By using a fictional setting instead of a real one, I can tap into my emotional memory of living there and apply it to a setting where I can control all of the cultural constraints upon the characters and events, instead of them controlling me.

In looking at my writing longer term, once I complete the three books in the Bonneterre series, I’ll need to figure out if the next contemporary-set stories I write will also be set there or if it may be time to look at setting my stories in the city where I live: Nashville. But will anyone buy novels that are set in Nashville if they don’t have anything to do with the music business? After all, that’s what the outsiders’ stereotype of Nashville is: Music City U.S.A. Opryland. The Grand Ol’ Opry. The Ryman Auditorium. The home of Country Music. Etc. But having lived here for twelve years, I have an insider’s view of the city that while music is, yes, a large industry in town, so are publishing, auto manufacturing (Saturn and Nissan plants, Nissan just moved their US headquarters here and Volkswagen just announced they’re doing the same), healthcare, aeronautics manufacturing, telecommunications, and so on. It’s also got a great history, from Daniel Boone to Davy Crockett to General John Bell Hood.

But would the setting (Nashville) be important to the story? Or would it just serve as a more generic city? What part of the culture of the location would I be incorporating in the story? What is this area’s culture if I don’t have at least one of the characters involved in the music industry? Would I be setting the stories here because it’s easy—since I live here—or because it’s for some reason a facet of the story that it takes place in Nashville, Tennessee?

I’ve discussed settings on this blog quite a bit before, yet still these questions persist. It’s easy to think of continuing to use Bonneterre as a setting for the foreseeable future—because, after all, I’ve “lived” in (with) Bonneterre for most of my adult life (I’ve lived in Nashville since 1996—four years less). Bonneterre is a part of me, because it came out of my imagination. However, I also have to think that while readers can enjoy a fictional setting, readers can connect even more with a real setting, especially one where they live or where they’ve visited or where they’d like to visit.

I’m not certain what I’m going to do (and plan to discuss this with my editor in September). I’m not leaning one way or the other right now. All I know is that I do need a good reason for the setting I choose so that I can use the setting as part of the story: to create culture and conflict, for events and things the characters can do, and to develop the background of the characters.

My historical trilogy is set in England, Jamaica, and aboard ships of the Royal Navy in 1814. For the story to work, it had to be set there because the story wouldn’t exist outside of it. So, in a way, instead of the setting being inspired by the story (like Bonneterre), the story was inspired by the settings. And that inspiration grew out of my love of that setting developed through my love of the stories of Jane Austen and the Horatio Hornblower series. There was no question about where I would set those books.

How do you choose your settings? Does your story dictate where it needs to be set, or has you developed your story around a particular setting? Are there certain places you’d like to set stories because those cities/towns/places inspire you?

18 Comments
  1. greyfort permalink
    Monday, July 21, 2008 7:51 am

    Good question – I’ve struggled with setting for awhile. It still hasn’t been determined… Not really anyway.

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  2. Monday, July 21, 2008 7:52 am

    greyfort is Leslie S. GRRRRRRR…..

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  3. Monday, July 21, 2008 8:51 am

    I think the story tends to dictate the stetting most the time. I just started a story for my kidst that incorporates England, the New World, and an imaginary island.

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  4. Monday, July 21, 2008 8:51 am

    I have set several books in Minnesota because I had easy access to the locations and historical museums, and because Minnesota is rich in history that inspires me to write stories about it. 🙂

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  5. Monday, July 21, 2008 9:33 am

    For the record, I love learning about cities I’ve never been to through fictional novels. I’d love read a novel set in Nashville that isn’t necessarily built around the music business. Since not much musically inclined, it’d be even more interesting to me if you showed the ‘other’ aspects of Nashville in your story. I hope you do decide to write one set there.

    As for me. My first three stories that I’ve written are set in a fictional town within Southern Ontario. I use the weather elements here and general land structure to reveal what living in Southern Ontario is like, and of course our culture comes through, too. But for me, I dreamed up Abergian and the surrounding township by gathering what I love from several different little towns and what exists in our township, too. When I write the paragraphs that describe certain gardens, ball parks, or wooded areas, I feel like I’m there, and so wish these places really did exist. I don’t know if I’ll ever write something that is true to a ‘real’ city or town. I love the fact that I can use my imagination and pull things from various places to create a unique setting for my characters to learn and grow in. It’s just so much fun!

    Now you have me daydreaming of the trail in my story again. Thanks for the reminder!

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  6. Monday, July 21, 2008 9:52 am

    None of my stories take place in the same location, and certainly none of them take place in Rocky Mount, NC (my home from first grade to senior year), nor would they likely take place in Orlando (home of the last two years).

    For me, climate is the biggest factor. Climate followed by stereotypes about a place’s inhabitants. Like my latest story is set in Texas, but the main characters are from New York, they’re not exactly comfortable in a number of ways.

    I think climate can set the mood far better than a lot of other details, just because regardless of where your characters are, everyone knows how they feel when they’re really hot, or when they’re really cold, or when it rains, or when it snows. Weather is fun to play with.

    Likewise, the people in an area generally have an expected persona. The south has rednecks, LA has unusually selfish people, the North East can be a bit pompous – the stereotypical expectations go on and on. Obviously, you’re not limited to follow these since they ARE just stereotypes (and stereotypes are only partially true), but I still feel like they’re an important thing to acknowledge as having a subconscious effect on how readers/watchers feel when you put them in a certain location. I like to set things in the midwest because I feel like that’s the closest thing America has to a blank canvas away from extreme pre-judgments.

    In the long run, to answer your initial question: For me, the writer picks the setting. I just think there are too many subconscious factors in readers/viewers minds to limit myself to a place simply because I happen to know my way around it. I’d rather do research for areas I don’t know that best fit the story, because it allows me to look at it from the same perspective 99% of the audience would (i.e. NOT long-time residents that know the area). This might also be an area where script and book writing differ. In a script, you don’t have time to take a break for a paragraph and explain the details of how a place ACTUALLY is, you just have to work it into the visuals by playing with what people already know or assume.

    I seem to always set everything in America though, and I love America to death. So I guess that main point rings true in that aspect.

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  7. Monday, July 21, 2008 10:27 am

    Settings make or break a book for me – as a reader and as a writer. As Eileen said – I love learning about new places.

    Three of my books are set in fictional towns, based on real ones where I’ve lived. I made them fictional since I write suspense, and will need “seedy” characters and places – prevents lawsuits in case anything looks too similar! 🙂 With each of these, characters developed who lived in these towns, and the story grew from that.

    But the 4th book I’m working on now – I’m actually setting in two real towns – one I currently live near, and the other I’ve never even visited! The research has been more in-depth, and my characters seem more real to me.
    With this book, the story and the character chose one of the towns, and because of the story, it needed another town and I chose it based on the recommendation of a friend who lived near there.

    Great post for discussion!

    (I’m also working on a fun mystery novella, and it is set just outside Nashville – and has nothing to do with the music industry.)

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  8. Monday, July 21, 2008 12:45 pm

    Ok, I’m also working on a novel set in Nashville not related to the music business…

    No really, seriously.. kinda… I had my hero live in Nashville and Heroine live in NC. Book 2 will be all in Nashville, well mostly, and book 3 is TBD setting. I am thinking of taking it OUT of Nashville, but I gotta have a reason. I think Nashville is an interesting place because even though your story doesn’t have to be about/involved in the music industry, it creates a good back drop for interesting life.

    In my first novel, I used the setting I did because I knew them, plain and simple. I wrote the setting into my book, not the other way around. (mostly because the MAIN setting is the Internet… so that added a fun twist in the setting department…)

    I think in the end it depends on your story. If you are writing a book about the Amish, good idea to put it in Amish country. If you are writing about the music industry, not the greatest idea to have it set in Lancaster, PA. But if you are writing about something more generic that doesn’t depend on your setting, I think that is when we can be creative, choose a setting, do the fun research and see how we can weave the setting into our story.

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  9. Monday, July 21, 2008 1:26 pm

    I can’t wait to read about Bonneterre! My current WIP is set in a fictional town in KY that I am basing on two towns put together to give me some frame of reference. I picked rural KY because that is where I’ve lived for 36 years. I do think setting is very important to a story.

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  10. Emilie permalink
    Monday, July 21, 2008 2:48 pm

    While the town in my current books is fictional, it’s location is deliberately near Purdue University, where I went for undergrad. Loved the school and the area, and if my husband hadn’t gotten a job in the Seattle area, we’d still be living there. I worked as a journalist for a few months after graduation and I got to know the surrounding small towns very well. Those formed the basis for my fictional town. Plus, having it close to Lafayette (a mid-sized city) makes it fairly close to Indianapolis (a big city), and even though my POV character doesn’t spend much time in either of those places, it does make the town seem a bit more connected to the outside world.

    Maybe someday I’ll set a novel in Seattle, but my mindset is still very Midwestern, especially my writing mindset. Who knows–it might be fun:)

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  11. Monday, July 21, 2008 2:51 pm

    I try to stick to places that I’m intimately familiar with. For some reason, my settings bear a strong resemblance to my home town. Of course, I did try the Alaskan wilderness setting, which was fun and I had spent some time there. I love the photo!

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  12. Monday, July 21, 2008 3:37 pm

    Writing fanfic makes the process easier. Places, as well as main characters, are already defined

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  13. Amy permalink
    Monday, July 21, 2008 4:07 pm

    Setting can make a story exotic. When writing a series, setting can become comfortable for the reader to read about more details of a familiar place, and fun. The place is sometimes the most tangible key that holds a series together.

    It’s fun to learn things as you read a novel. Place certainly counts for this: a little exotic, and IMHO any place can be made exotic with the vision that a writer employs.

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  14. Monday, July 21, 2008 4:42 pm

    I have gone with a SW Ohio scene, but the towns have ficitous names and several the state park elements are combined.

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  15. Tuesday, July 22, 2008 10:50 am

    Choosing a setting is difficult. Using a real place adds, well, a degree of realism, something today’s readers look for. On the otherhand, using a fictious place gives the author more latitude in terms of creating the perfect environment.

    Neither one is without trepidation.

    I’m using a fictional place in my current wip but it’s near real places that I can reference. I guess I’m trying to meld the two options.

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  16. Nicole (ikkinlala) permalink
    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 12:36 am

    I’m not a writer (of fiction, anyway), so I can’t comment on how I choose settings. I have to admit that when I think of Nashville I do tend to think of country music – cut me some slack, please, I’ve never been there – but I think it would be interesting to read about other aspects of the city, especially the historical ones.

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  17. M. Isaac permalink
    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 7:03 am

    I think the mountains inspire and relax me. I have been through the Appalacian and Blue Ridge mountains and on both sides of the rockies. My favorite is in the autumn when the trees are turning – just beautiful! In general just a change of scenery helps get the creativity flowing

    I don’t write (yet!) but if I wrote it would be about a place I am familiar with. I imagine most people do the same thing! Someone writing about growing up in the South is going to write a very differently than someone writing about growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Thus the trend in seeing “regional authors” featured in bookstores.

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  18. Thursday, July 24, 2008 1:00 pm

    I don’t read books set in Nashville BECAUSE of the music industry plots. Those bore me to tears. I would totally read a book set in Nashville that had nothing to do with the music industry. In fact, I actually have. The Needlework Mysteries by Monica Ferris has one that takes place at the big industry trade show in Nashville. How many people know that about Nashville?

    I do use settings that I’ve never been to. Russia in particular. The closest I can get right now is pictures from my CP. 1600 of them to be exact!

    I don’t write a lot of stuff set in Louisiana. With all the history we have, it’s still very difficult to write what I want to write with Louisiana as my setting. I only have one WIP that’s set in Louisiana, pre-Civil War. The Alexandria I’m writing about in that one doesn’t exist anymore. It burned to the ground in less than 4 hours on May 13, 1864, which happened to be a Friday. Though this one book is trying to turn itself into a series. Hero has 2 younger sisters and they’re starting to talk to me about their experiences during The War and one of them falls in love with a Yankee soldier.

    While I’ve lived in Louisiana all my life, my family roots here only go back 2 generations. I’ve got more family in South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas than I do here.

    I too have a fictional town, in the Colorado Rockies. I LOVE mountains, but my ears would never allow me to live there. So I have characters live there instead.

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