Choosing a Setting and Getting it Right

Hi, SE Readers. Joan here today to talk about settings and making them realistic.

Lots of things occur behind the scenes before an author published a novel. Whether the writer is a planner or a panster, he or she must decide a few things such as genre, character names, and premise before beginning to write the words.

An author must decide on the setting. Is the book set in England during the 1700s, or the nineteenth century American West? For the sake of this post, let’s say I want to write a novel set in twenty-first century America.

Okay, that narrows the time frame but where in America? New York City? North Carolina? Arizona? Whatever place I choose, I need to familiarize myself with the area to create a realistic setting. In other words, research!

Consider this scenario:

Allison stepped onto the patio, enjoying the coolness of the desert southwest evening. Saguaro cacti were silhouetted against the sunset, and a roadrunner darted behind an agave plant. A cactus wren perched nearby. Allison walked further into the yard and stopped to stand beneath a giant magnolia tree…

What’s wrong with this picture? Saguaro cacti, roadrunners, agave plants, and cactus wrens are all common to the desert southwest. A magnolia tree is not. Write something like that, and you’ll lose your readers’ trust and ultimately damage our credibility as an author.

Unless it’s an area you are familiar with, to get the setting right requires some research on the part of the author.

For my Driscoll Lake series, I chose an area that I know like the back of my hand. Texas. The fictitious town of Driscoll Lake is based loosely on my hometown, so describing the scenes was easy. Friday night football games and marching bands are a part of life here.

Throughout the three books, several scenes occur in restaurants. To describe these places, I just close my eyes and picture our local Chili’s, a favorite Mexican restaurant, or local café. Easy.

When I wrote The Blue Moon Murders, I created another fictional town. The story was included in an anthology of western stories. Although I didn’t name the state, I had in mind northern New Mexico.

I have visited this area several times and am familiar with the landscape. When someone from my writer’s group said to me they pictured an area near Santa Fe, I knew I’d done something right.

Not all mistakes are physical. Let’s look at another possibility.

Hank looked around at the group of friends. “I want to thank yous for coming. Can I get you a soda?”

Nothing especially wrong with the sentence. Clearly, the author has used regional dialect in choosing the words youse and soda— everyday use if the character grew up or lives somewhere like New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

But in this book, Hank lives in Georgia. He would more likely say, “Thank y’all for coming. Can I get you a coke?”

Gold Wings is a time travel story in which a Navy Aviator is transported back to World War II. Not only did I have to do a lot of research about planes, aircraft carriers, and terminology, I researched American life in the early 1940s.

How much did a burger and shake cost? What movies were popular then? Which modern-day naval bases were in use in 1943?

The internet proved to be a valuable resource, and I learned much more about the Navy that I ever dreamed. My husband and I even traveled to Corpus Christi, Texas and toured the USS Lexington, a former carrier which is now a museum.

If you’re able to travel to the area where you want to set your book, I recommend it. Other than the visit to the Lex, I’ve yet to make such a trip. But doing so enables you to get a real feeling for the setting. Meeting and talking with locals helps you learn about area customs.

Research is more accessible these days because of the Internet, but a word of caution. Just because it’s there doesn’t make it right. It’s best to check several sources and/or websites. Wikipedia, while popular, isn’t always the most accurate source because anyone can post anything.

What methods to do you choose when researching your setting? Please share in the comments.

18 thoughts on “Choosing a Setting and Getting it Right

  1. Great post, Joan. And this is why I set both of my series in areas I know pretty well. I use a lot of Florida background and wildlife in my Riverbend series and feel comfortable doing so, as I’m a Florida native, and an ardent nature lover, canoeist, birder, etc. So I can pull on those experiences for background. I speak with a southern accent, myself, and feel comfortable with that kind of dialogue. And I always use a fictional city/town/county, whatever, too, because I don’t want to place a business on the corner of such and such, and have readers go, “Wait. That’s where the bank is, not a bookstore.” (Yeah, I like to make it easier on myself.)

    I’ve never lived in the North Carolina mountains, but they’re my favorite place in the world (so far) and I’ve visited many times. I try to be sure that I don’t put things into my Wake-Robin Ridge backgrounds and settings that I haven’t seen for myself. Again, it’s just easier for me.

    Having said all of that, I do still research a good bit, and I download maps of my general background area, so I can include actual towns, etc, as possible destinations for outings, or whatnot, and get distances and things right. So the research is vital, even when I’m familiar with the area. And besides, I don’t want to plop my fictional town down on a spot where something else exists, or where the topography wouldn’t work. So maps are a big help in that regard.

    SO much more to writing than just telling the tale! Enjoyed this post a lot, Joan! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Marcia, I also look at maps. They are extremely helpful. My current Driscoll Lake series is set in Texas and is a fictitious town based loosely on my hometown. However, I do mention bigger Texas cities such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. For the third book, I reference real towns in the western part of the state, so I had to do my research (even though I’ve visited them).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, yes, I like to throw in neighboring towns or local attractions too, because I’ve found readers really enjoy it when they come across something that they are familiar with. It connects them to the story and makes your fictional town seem more anchored and real, I believe. But yeah, even then, you have to be careful not to make a glaring error, or it throws folks right out of the story. I also mention the occasional local business or a park or two, and once in a while, restaurants, again to give an anchor. But I try to be very careful with that, as well. Better to make one up than to get it wrong.

        It’s amazing how much research and fact checking can go into our work, isn’t it? And I think we ignore that kind of thing at our own peril, if we want readers to believe our towns actually exist, at least while they’re reading. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  3. You touched on a very important aspect of any writing, Joan. Nothing will throw me out of a story quicker than something so out of place like the Magnolia tree in the desert. That’s when I know the writer has never been to the desert and didn’t bother to do the research of the area. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jan, I remember visiting relatives in Alabama back when the TV show Dallas was popular. When people learned I lived in Texas, they immediately asked me about the show and the area. It was funny to see how some people envisioned Dallas. (Magnolia trees, big oaks laced with moss, etc. Much like a southern plantation.) Many were surprised when I told them Dallas was on a prairie.

      You’re right, it takes research to get it right.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love how the internet has opened doors to getting different aspects of settings correct. You can even Google Earth addresses for an up close look. I tend to set my books in fictional towns or locales based on areas I know well. I tweak them to suit my needs. The only time I ever used an actual town was Point Pleasant in my Point Pleasant series. Fortunately the town is only a six hour drive from me, so my husband and I made two weekend trips there in order for me to do first-hand research. That was an amazing experience, and I was delighted when many people who’d lived in the area and read the books said I captured it well in the stories. If I can ever research an area through a visit again, I will definitely take advantage of it!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. So much truth in this post. I was in the same anthology as you were. My research on Egyptology was out of control. Some stories require more research than others though. If you think of a lonely space station, about all you have are your imagination and what others have already done. Monsters, aliens, magic, etc. are kind of the same way. I research for every book though, even those set in alternate worlds or distant planets. It isn’t always location, sometimes it’s how to tan leather or something. It fits with the world building and needs to be right. Oh, and if any of our fans stop by, it’s called Quantum Wanderlust, and it’s permanently free.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dialogue is an excellent tool for establishing setting. I think people forget about that sometimes. I admit, I back off of that a little. Many of my stories are set in or around Pittsburgh, but I don’t usually include typical Pittsburgh speak. I could confuse people. When we moved to Ohio, I met someone who grew up roughly thirty minutes from me. We were having a conversation, and I found myself slipping back into local vernacular. Then I noticed a bunch of the other moms staring at us. They were completely lost. We’d used so many Pittsburgh words, they couldn’t follow the conversation! One of these days, though, I’m going to write a story like that. I think it’ll be fun, and I know Western Pennsylvanians would love it (even if no one else understands it.)

    There are whole lists online of Pittsburgh words/phrases. (Pretty sure we have t-shirts and mugs, too.) It wouldn’t surprise me if other regions had similar lists. But I don’t know for sure because I’ve never looked.

    Loved this post, Joan.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I try not to use a lot of dialect when writing. Too much can confuse the reader. But I think it would be fun to write a story. We have our sayings and words here in Texas. Other regions probably wouldn’t understand.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My first book, The Battle for Brisingamen, was set between Dover (which I know a little) and Holland (which I don’t). I used Google extensively for names, hospital systems and hospitals, trawler fishing, etc. One reviewer said the book had a foreign feel to it, so I knew I’d gotten it right. It is so much easier with the internet. Like you said, I checked a lot of different sources to get what I needed. The Glade is set in the Forest of Dean, which I again didn’t know. One of my readers is a local, and he commented that it felt like walking down the main street of the village with me. I’d made up the name but based it on the only village there, lol, so he guessed it. Again, I managed to get it right. However, it’s always a gamble relying solely on the internet, and I agree that if you can visit then do. And speaking to locals is always a bonus, because an outsider often misses the finer points of what it’s like to live in a place. I remember years ago, trying to research how to pilot helicopters. No internet then. Two buses into the city centre. Then trekking to the library. Then waiting an hour for a librarian to be free to take me to the right area in the reference section. Now, I can get all that sitting in my computer chair! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • We do have an advantage these days, and I use the Internet extensively. When I wrote the time travel story last year, not only did I have to research the modern-day US Navy, but historically in 1943. It was a challenge, as I obviously couldn’t pop back to 1943 or at the time couldn’t travel to one of the Naval bases on the east coast. But I learned a lot from the research (something I used to hate doing).

      I’m sure the reader’s comment made you feel good. Shows you put effort into “getting it right.”

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Yes I always set stories in places I know, but the Internet is vital for checking ( double checking as you suggest ) the time dimension. Places change all the time, especially cities, which makes setting novels in ‘the present’ difficult!

    Liked by 5 people

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