Wherever You Set Your Stories, There You Are

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Despite what you might have been told in grade school, people are NOT the same everywhere. They are different and where they are from and how they live is part of what makes them different.

This is why setting is so essential to a book or story.

An important goal of any writer is to achieve reader identification. We want readers to see themselves in the lead character, to share the leader’s thoughts and emotions. Certainly, this sort of identification has a great deal to do with whether or not we find a work of fiction involving enough to stay with it and what we’ll think about it once we’ve finished reading. The more we feel that the lead character is a person like us; that he thinks and reacts like we do, the more involved we will be in his story.

This is a fairly obvious point. However, I submit that the ability to see oneself in a fictional character is only one aspect of reader identification. The other part is the ability to see ourselves living in the character’s world.

Smart use of setting transports the reader into these worlds and gives us a sense not only of whom the characters are that live there but why they behave the way that they do.

People in Texas not only speak differently than the folks in Minnesota, they have a different world view based on location, climate, history, politics, even sports (in Texas football is king, Minnesota is the state of hockey). And these differences will affect how characters behave and how a story will unfold. At least they should.

Many writers don’t care about setting. Or perhaps I should say setting isn’t particularly important to the stories they tell. Most of Ross MacDonald’s novels take place in Southern California. So do Sue Grafton’s. Yet you could move them to another locale without losing much. Some writers actually invent the cities and towns their books take place in, as Ed McBain did with his 87th Precinct and the Matthew Hope novels.

On the other hand, James Lee Burke’s novels can only take place in New Orleans. The same is true of Carl Hiaasen in Florida, James Crumley in Montana and Idaho, and William Kent Krueger in northern Minnesota, Dennis Lehane in Boston and Laura Lippman in Baltimore. The settings these authors choose do more than merely set the stage for their stories. They influence literally everything that takes place in them.

Settings don’t need to be based on geography, either. It could be economics - the denizens of Kenwood have little in common with the good folks who live on the North Side of Minneapolis - or politics - in St. Paul, the fairly conservative Eastsiders have a poor opinion of the liberals who live in Macalester-Groveland.

So, how do you capture setting? It starts with research. Learn the history of a location. (Everything has a back story - everything!) Most importantly, you must go to the places you’re writing about. Hang around. Pay attention. Read the newspapers and magazines, watch local TV news. Talk to the people. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Listen not only to what people say, but how they say it. Write it all down. Assume nothing.

I went recently to Chicago to sign some books. The first thing I noticed was the car horns. They are relentless and if you watch Chicago drivers, you’ll see why.

I discovered that the Chicago River isn’t green because they dye it on St. Patrick’s Day; it’s green because of over 150 years of continuous pollution (although the EPA did recently upgrade the river from “toxic” to “hazardously polluted”). In the early 1900s, to avoid polluting its water supply - specifically Lake Michigan - the city dredged the river enough to actually reverse its course so that it emptied its sewage in the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers - and ultimately the Mississippi - which made everyone happy except the people living along the Des Plaines, Illinois and Mississippi.

I learned that if you want to go to Cellular Field to watch the White Sox, you take the “red line’ to 35th Street and that Sox fans don’t mind if you wear Twins apparel, but God help you if they catch you in a Cubs jersey.

There are more mansions on Sheridan Road than on Lake Shore Drive, and the first Ferris Wheel (it appeared at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893) had gondolas the size of railroad cars and each was equipped with a full bar.

Granted, none of this information is particularly important, but you have a better sense of the city and the people who live there now than you did twenty seconds ago, I bet.

I’m not talking about merely sprinkling your work with landmarks, though; having characters walking down familiar streets or past famous buildings. If you want to make the most use of setting, you have it immerse yourself in the area and the customs of the people. (Think Margaret Mead and her Samoans.) Reading Wikipedia isn’t going to cut it.

Just remember the old saying - if you were from where they are from and you were taught what they were taught, you would believe what they believe.

That is the ultimate goal of setting - making the reader believe.

e-mail David Housewright

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