Get set: why you can’t afford to ignore time and place in your writing

Writers can dedicate endless amounts of time and thought to both characters and plot when formulating the concept for a new novel. Not surprising really – unless you have a plot that keeps your readers turning the pages or characters that are interesting, your novel isn’t likely to meet expectations.

But what of the setting for your novel? How important is that to your novel’s success?

I would argue it plays a big role and below are just a few of the reasons why:

Think of setting as your novel’s backbone

The modern contrasts the old: one of the reasons I chose Sydney as the setting for Radiant

The modern contrasts the old: one of the reasons I chose Sydney as the setting for Radiant

The setting of your novel has the capability to expand on the broader concepts in your novel. If you’re writing a dark thriller, the background of each scene has the power to add to the suspense and the mood. Or, if you’re writing a contemporary romance, the setting can help to illustrate your characters qualities and situation in life.

To look at it from a different perspective, I’m also a musician and when it came to buying a new electronic piano a couple of years ago, I did plenty of research and then settled on the Roland. Why? Because there was no beating the sound and build quality of this particular brand. To be blunt, playing on a Roland makes me sound better (or less bad!) and the setting for your writing should be given the same thought and consideration because it has the power to augment your writing in positive ways.

Write what you know or else research like crazy?

Once you’ve decided on your setting, what then? Some common advice is to write about what you know. It’s certainly going to be easier to weave the details of a place into your storyline quite effortlessly if it’s somewhere you’re familiar with, but that’s also extremely limiting! So, I think a better way to look at it, is to write about a place that you want to get to know (if you don’t know it well already).

If you’re writing fantasy or historical fiction, well, obviously these worlds are difficult to visit, so this is where good quality research and planning comes in. If you’re not the sort of person who is predisposed to the amounts of time and effort that research of this nature requires, then perhaps consider a rethink of your novel’s setting.

One of my favourite historical authors, Deanna Raybourn, claims that for each new project she can obtain up to something crazy like 60 books for the purposes of research – and then in terms of the actual writing, she only utilises a very small amount because the rest is for helping to immerse herself in the time period. Exhausting! Refer to point 2 in her amazing blog post here in which she knows a couple of things 😉

Setting is a jigsaw held together by each individual scene

Setting isn’t just about the big picture either. Readers are fickle creatures and tend to get bored easily. Usually when we read it is to experience something new or to escape, so make sure that each scene in your novel isn’t constantly in the same place. If the same place features regularly and it’s necessary for the novel, then that’s OK too, just remember to mix it up as much as you can. My editor wisely caught me out for having my characters eating too much (perhaps I was just hungry a lot during writing that particular novel?) so I was thankful when she brought it to my attention so I could then consciously vary it more.

Help! My setting is unusual

An unusual setting can mean different things – it could be a new fantasy world or a less popular time in history (there’s a lot of Victorian fiction available, but less in a medieval setting for example). What do you do?

I’m going to go the emotional path here and suggest you go with your heart in this case. If it’s something you are passionate about, you’re more likely to write it well and be damned with all the naysayers spouting their ‘rules’ and ‘should’ advice.

To give you a practical example, my romantic suspense title, Radiant, is set in Sydney. This isn’t always popular with traditional publishers because the claim is that Sydney doesn’t have the appeal or recognition of other international cities like Paris, New York or London. It’s too colloquial apparently.

But here’s the thing. I know Sydney well and I’m passionate about it. The various landscapes of the city and surrounding natural areas ‘fit’ my angels and demons storyline perfectly – the cityscape, the bush, the coastline. So I went with it. I’m also a little stubborn and figured how is place supposed to be appealing if we’re too scared to write about it?!

Initial feedback from readers seems to suggest that local readers really enjoy reading about a city that’s their own for a change, while readers overseas feel like they are discovering a new place along with getting to know the characters in Radiant.

Or maybe that’s why I’m self-published!

How about you? Have you put much thought into the setting for your writing or is it easy to gloss over in favour of the plot and your characters?

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