Monday, May 16, 2011

Setting: Better Real or Imagined?

            Many aspiring writers today lament the fact that the publishing industry is so much more difficult to break into than it was say fifteen or twenty years ago, that the rules are far different.  We even see this in how books are written.  For one, prologues are way out of vogue, or so I hear.  When I find a new book I like written by an author who has been around for quite some time, I go out of my way to hunt down every novel they’ve ever written in that genre.  It doesn’t matter if it’s fifteen years old or more.  If it’s good, it will survive the test of time and the changes the world has undergone since first written, even if it has a prologue.  What difference does it make what the first section of text is called, whether it’s a prologue or chapter one, as long at it helps build the story?  I certainly don’t care. 
Sometimes it can be a little distracting when the author writes heavily about technology.  Take, for instance, Greg Iles’s Mortal Fear.  This was the author’s third published novel and his first away from the stage of World War II.  Iles’s characters utilized cutting edge computer technology for the time, that being 1997, but when you read it today, you’re likely to snicker knowing how outdated all that technology sounds.  So in that way, the written words are not timeless, though the story itself remains so.
            Earlier this month, author John Gilstrap wrote a post on The Kill Zone website called Terrors of Timelessness.  This came just days after the unexpected death of public enemy number one, Osama bin Laden.  Gilstrap speculated that there might be a few writers out there who were not as elated by the news as most of us were.  Why, you ask?  Well, because they were in the middle of writing a novel with you-know-who as the arch enemy.  So if OBL is dead, all their efforts are for nothing, or at the very least, they will have to do a major rewrite.  Gilstrap’s point was that writing fiction grounded in reality “ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
            He used setting as an example.  Gilstrap wrote that his stories needed to be timely and current and because he had to produce one novel every year, to remain timely and current required that he never place his characters in a real setting.  He theorized that while some readers would likely recognize the particular location of a certain scene, most would not and so the reality of the location was irrelevant.  While I understand his point, I disagree to a certain extent.
Sure, when you include details grounded in reality, you run the risk of being inaccurate and therefore drawing a few readers out of the story because they know something to be wrong.  But when you’re placing your characters in a real place, a place you know well, perhaps even intimately, you are able to convey the subtle details that make that place so unique and often so well-loved.  Two of my favorite writer’s, Michael Connelly and James Scott Bell, often place their stories in LA. 
Now, I spent most of my life in Northern California, the Bay Area actually, but I’ve been to LA quite a few times and while I don’t know the downtown city streets at all or the neighborhoods of Topanga Canyon or Mulholland Drive, I have an idea of what they look and feel like and this imagery works well for me as I read.  It presents details that the author never included.
Same goes for Greg Iles.  He writes almost exclusively about his home state of Mississippi, most notably Natchez, where he has lived most of his life.  I’ve never been to Natchez though I’ve heard of its history and seen pictures of the antebellum mansions.  A city ripe with actual historical accounts offers lush layers that can be woven into an author’s characters and stories and Iles does this to perfection.  In fact, I was so infatuated with his description of Natchez after reading so many of his novels that I took a virtual tour through the city using Google Maps.  When Iles wrote about a particular street, I found that street and “drove” up it, scanning the homes and business along the way.
It’s just not the same with an imaginary setting.  There is no history to extract from.  There are no monuments to give the reader direction or a true sense of place.  It’s just an ordinary place much like any other and even if it is richly drawn, the fact that it’s not grounded in reality makes it kind of murky in my mind.  Yeah, I will keep reading and enjoy the story for what it is, but the setting is not as strong of a character as it would have been if it had been an actual place with an actual past. 
This does not relate to other kinds of fiction such as sci-fi or fantasy where half the written word is about world building.  Those kinds of novels start from scratch, as they should.  But in my genre—thrillers—the setting is often nearly as important as the major characters and while you can make up any setting just like you make up your characters, so often our characters are assemblies of who we are and those who occupy the orbits around our lives, so why wouldn’t you want to ground them in a world you know well, a place others can relate to on a personal level? 
No, not all readers will recognize the nuances of your setting, but then again, if it is a made up place, nobody would.  Not really.  I mean, how could they, if it’s not a real place?  If the setting is real, many will pick up on those subtle distinctions so why not allow them the pleasure of something familiar?  And it’s not always important for the writer to have an intimate knowledge of their story’s setting either.  My friend, Lisa Regan, set her first novel, Finding Claire Fletcher, in Sacramento, California, a place she had never been.  But Lisa didn’t need to draw on concrete places to flesh out the setting and as abstract as she was in pointing out particular locations, having intimate knowledge of the place myself made the story so much richer for me, not to mention easier for me to visualize.  It didn't matter that she had never been there.  I had and I knew what it looked like.
The conceptual can be cool, don’t get me wrong, but the familiar is more comfortable and relatable and in the end, I want my readers to be able to relate to all my characters, including the setting, which is every bit as much of a character as the protagonist or antagonist.  So I would be very interested in hearing from some of my readers.  Do you prefer the stories you read to be set in a real location or a fictionalized one?  


Lisa R said...

This is a really interesting post. I am one of those people who--as a reader (and probably as a writer)--believes less is more with setting. I get really irritated and bored when writers spend an inordinate amount of time on setting. For me, I'll never go to most of the places the stories I'm reading take place in so I don't really care about the author fleshing out the setting in the book. I mean I like a little bit of orientation--a general feel for the setting. I think you do it just right in your book--not too much but not too little. I am flattered to hear you say what you've said about Finding Claire Fletcher. I've thought so many times of changing the setting but many people have told me not to. I just want to say that I've read a lot of books that are set in Philadelphia and I've only ever seen one writer get it right. If you live here, you can tell who is doing it from research and who is writing from experience. (That might also be because anyone famous or semi-famous who says they are from Philly are actually from a suburb well outside of Philly so they've been to the city about 5 times in their whole lives. Apparently, Philadelphia reaches about 50 miles in every direction. But I digress.)

Even so, I don't much care. I'm far more interested in the story. I really enjoyed the way John Hart used setting in his book--it kind of mirrored the plot. It would be rainy and gloomy (the lives of the characters were gloomy)or hot and oppressive (the evil the characters were facing was oppressive) or the forest would be thick and nearly impassable (much like the issues the characters were dealing with). I enjoyed that and I enjoyed that he didn't spend a lot of time on it. I love Iles but sometimes I get bored with his descriptions of Natchez. I am probably the exception but I like as little time as possible devoted to setting. That said, to answer your question I don't care whether the setting is real or not as long as the author doesn't talk about it too much! LOL.

Laila Knight said...

I have to say that I'm not a big fan of setting. I've seen a writer spend ten pages discribing the falling snow, and it's bored me to tears up to the point where I start skimming ahead to the good parts. As long as the book focuses on my favorite characters, that's enough for me.

My husband loves James Patterson. I picked up one of his books, and he doesn't seem to spend more time than necessary describing the surroundings.

I've read several urban fantasies where they mix it up. They take a state, let's say California and add places that aren't there at all. Most of us don't know the difference.

I guess I can go either way. It's fiction. All we can do is play with it and see what works for what we're writing, or reading.

TaraNator said...

I'm a people watcher. I'm detail oriented and when I read, I want to be fully immersed. I want to know how things smell, how they feel, what they look like. I want to know it all. However, I DON'T like gratuitous detailing. There are ways to fully describe a setting without info dumping. That's why Stephen King is my writing God of choice...I love the way he describes everything - to the point where I feel like I'm actually there - but doesn't bog the story down. That said, not everyone agrees with me.

I enjoy stories where the author takes a 'normal' every day setting and makes it their own. For example - The Sookie Stackhouse books - Charlaine Harris takes what would be a normal, maybe even boring setting, but changes the world to suit her plot. I don't know that it's necessarily world building, since IMO, the town could be Anywhere, LA, but it's different. I also like how Stephen King places his characters in Maine, a place that he knows well, but creates a new city, based on others. And...I love dystopian worlds...I find them incredibly interesting and it helps me 'see' how the author thinks.

Still, in all honesty, I have no preference if the plot grabs me. I can read about an actual city or an entire new world (Love, love, LOVE Tolkien) as long as the story is interesting. And detailed. ;-)