Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SETTINGS AS CHARACTERS?

Darrell James

I was once asked, What’s the toughest part of writing a novel? Without thinking, my knee jerk answer was “Decision Making.”

Authors make decisions even before the writing begins. What to write about? Where to set the story? Where to begin the telling? And the decision making continues throughout the process until the very end, deciding on the minutia as well as the major plot and character elements.

One of the decisions an author must make early in the writing process (perhaps even early in their career) is: Will my story(s) have a fictional or real setting?

Some authors have made real settings part of their own storytelling brand, (Michael Connolley’s L.A., Dennis Lehane’s Boston) by using real places (restaurants, bars, hotels, buildings, streets, rivers, and landmarks) as the backdrop for their fictional characters. Others prefer to fully fictionalize their settings. While, still others, offer a mix of the real and fictional elements.

Stephen King has created towns so familiar and real to us that we can hardly think of them as fictional. Yet, the towns of Derry and Castle Rock are fully the fabric of King’s imagination, set topographically amid the greater (real) Maine landscape.

I personally like this approach. And, as an author, it offers a couple of advantages. The first is flexibility. Elements of the fictional setting can be decided (that word again), manipulated, and fully architected to support the plot. The other advantage (and this is the important part to me) is that the author can fully imagine the setting and breathe a personal life into it, treating it, in many ways, as a character in the story.

In my forthcoming novel, Nazareth Child, missing persons investigator, Del Shannon, goes in search of the mother she’s never known. Her quest leads her into the clannish hill country of southeastern Kentucky, to the town of Nazareth Church, where the infamous faith healer, Silas Rule, seems to hold the key to her mother’s past.

These hills (and it’s people) are my roots. It is the birthplace of my mother and father. The DNA of my existence. Take the mountain parkway southeast out of Winchester, and your journey will take you through the very real towns of Clay City, Stanton, and Bowen, all mentioned and used as real topographic anchors in the story. But, search as you might, you won’t find the town of Nazareth Church anywhere but between the pages of the novel.



From the giant cross that marks its entrance, to the old cemetery, and church without windows, it’s all fictional. And, yet, so very real to the possibilities and likelihoods that one will scarcely know the difference.

Nazareth Church has become real in my mind. It lives. It breathes. And it plays a very “real” role in the development and outcome of the story. Only in fictional form can it fulfill its role so completely.

What about you? As a writer, do you prefer to write real or fictional settings? As a reader, which do you prefer?


Nazareth Child, a Del Shannon Novel, is scheduled for release in September. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon

12 comments:

Lisa Bork said...

Darrell, I think "decision making" was an excellent answer.

My books are set "topographically" in the Finger Lakes region of NYS, so I could blend a lot of the elements of the small towns there into a "character" I liked. As a reader, I prefer a setting, real or embellished, that adds character to a story.

Keith Raffel said...

I've set everything I've written in real cities: Palo Alto, Washington DC, Jerusalem. Keeping it real and believable is part of the fun. OTOH, I support the decision of those like you, Darrell, and Lewis Carroll who decide to create their own worlds.

G.M. Malliet said...

Decision making - perfect answer. The whole process of writing is making decisions and following through on them. It's hard to let go of those other ideas, however tantalizing they may be. But you have to, or you'd never finish the manuscript!

As to real or imaginary settings: I've used both, & enjoyed the challenges of both.

Alan Orloff said...

It IS all about decision-making, isn't it? I guess I've never really thought about it like that.

I've done both--used real places (with ficticious elements) and places that sprang up from my imagination. Depends on the needs of the story.

Deborah Sharp said...

Darrell, I take the same approach you do: fictional town, set in an authentic part of Florida. It's freeing, and as a former journalist, I know how some readers love to play ''Gotcha'' if you mess up even the tiniest detail of geography or the like. Making up the town eliminates that game.

Darrell James said...

Deb- Yeah, it makes it hard to criticize when you created the entire setting fictionally. But I suspect someone will.

Beth Groundwater said...

I base my books in real Colorado locations--Colorado Springs, Breckenridge, and Salida so far. However, if "bad stuff" needs to happen in a business, such as a murder or drug dealing or other illegal activities, I make up that business, so I don't slander/libel any real business.

Sally Carpenter said...

My book coming out this fall is set in a real city--Evansville, Ind.--but in a fictious hotel that gave me flexibility in what the characters do. I mention several real sites in town to lend some "authenticity." One advantage of a ficitious setting is one is not so tightly locked into research and accurate descriptions!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Fictional or real, I love a strong sense of place in any novel. My Chloe Ellefson books are set in real places, but like Beth, I make up any businesses involved in anything shady.

Your new book sounds fascinating!

Alice Loweecey said...

Like Alan, I've done both--made up a town and used an actual town. Google Earth rocks.

Very interesting post!

Shannon said...

Such decisions! I set the book I just turned in in Flagstaff, but I took a few liberties so will I end up "fictionalizing" the town to a northern Arizona town and making the Hopi tribe the Pohi? Only our editor knows....

Darrell James said...

Great comments, everyone. It sounds like the jury is split. But the one thing that seems to remain true with everyone is the interest in having a story setting that is "real" (fictional or otherwise).