Friday, June 5, 2009

Here or There: Where Do Your Characters Belong?

All stories are set somewhere. From the most mundane office to the most exotic tropical beach, the setting can have a great effect on a story. Take the mundane office, for example. If it’s described as a place that’s sucking the life out of the main character, it provides all kinds of possibilities for the character’s escape from the perceived prison of a job she hates. And the tropical beach? What better place to have the hero and heroine fall in love? There’s something so romantic about warm ocean breezes, sunshine, and long stretches of pristine white sand.

So, how does one go about choosing a setting for a particular story? Well, for me, it depends a lot on the characters and the plot. Since I’m one of those people who writes by the seat of my pants, the plot tends to evolve as I get deeper into the story. But I usually have a vague idea of where I’d like the story to go and the personalities of the characters.

In the case of my inspirational romance Dreams Do Come True, the setting just came to me naturally. I wanted small town atmosphere, but I wanted it close to a large city. I tossed around several locations before settling on a fictional town just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. Why Cincinnati, you ask? Well, I’ve gone through it multiple times, so I’m at least vaguely familiar with it, and I’ve been to Ohio enough to have a good idea of how the people talk and dress. I know that statement makes it sound like Ohio is a foreign country, which it very well could be to some of my readers, but I’ve been in enough states to know that for all of the similarities, there are subtle differences as well. It’s hard to point out specific differences, since they are subtle, but it’s essential for a writer to be familiar enough with her story’s setting to be able to write it realistically. You never know who is going to read your story, and if your version of Maryland sounds more like British Columbia, someone will notice and likely tell all of their friends that you don’t know anything about Maryland.

Another part of the setting to keep in mind isn’t just the location, but also the time period. Writing a story set in 1735 and having your characters speak like they’re from the current day is a good way to get rejections from editors and annoy readers. As I’ve said so many times, it’s all about realism. If your plot or your characters aren’t believable, no one is going to want to read your story. The same thing goes for the setting; both time and place have to be believable for readers to want to read it.

There are so many perspectives on what makes a good setting and how writers choose them. For a look at what other authors have to say about setting, check out the rest of the Classic Romance Revival blog carnival.

20 comments:

lastnerve said...

Loved the blog. I think time and setting just make the story ..... and oh yeah a cowboy or two doesn't hurt! :)

Val

Sandy Wickersham-McWhorter said...

So true! Setting made my story in my second Wild Rose Press book, Cottonwood Place. The more I researched the Southwest and the Navajo Indians, the more I found ideas for the plot that literally made the book's plot flow out of my mind at speeds like I'd never written before. I'd been to Boulder City, NV, and Bullhead City, Az, twice and fell head over hells in love with the land out there. The sunsets are mesmerizing. Once you've been there, your heart stays there. I couldn't think of a setting I loved more than the Southwest.

S. said...

Yep, setting matters. After all, we want the reader to feel like they are THERE in the story, so we, the authors, better do a dang good job of making them to believe they are!

Got a good laugh about the Maryland line! :)

Donna B said...

So true about setting. I'm a pantser too and the characters generally show me the specifics even though I know in general where they are...and the language thing - that's why I only write contemporary. Little colloquialisms are enough of a challenge I'll leave the "Yes, my Lord and milady" to someone else!

Lindsay Townsend said...

Lovely blog! I really do feel as if I've visited all the wonderful places you describe.

Kara Lynn Russell said...

Yes, there are differences even between different regions in the same state. I'm in central Wisconsin now and I grew up here. My family and I lived in eastern WI for about 10 years and now that we've moved back we "talk funny." We say 'bubbler' instead of 'water fountain' and 'soda' instead of 'pop.' And that's just the beginning of it.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Are you more comfortable setting your stories in areas with which you have some degree of familiarity? Or did Dreams Do Come True just happen that way?

E.A. West said...

Thanks for all the great comments!

Val, yes, cowboys just make it better. :)

Sandy, your descriptions in Cottonwood Place made me feel like I was there with the characters. Your love of the Southwest definitely comes through in your writing.

S., I'm glad you enjoyed the Maryland line. I've read stories set in an area I'm familiar with, and the descriptions and "regional" speech were way off. It drove me nuts!

Donna, I'd love to write a historical at some point, but getting all those colloquialisms right intimidates me into writer's block. I have a healthy respect for anyone who can write a realistic historical story.

Thanks, Lindsay! So glad you stopped by and enjoyed my post.

Kara, I have never heard "bubbler" used for a water fountain. I guess it's true that you learn something new every day. :)

E.A. West said...

Jacquie, a lot of my stories are set in or based on places I'm at least vaguely familiar with. It saves on research. LOL :)

Seriously, I do like it when my characters decide I can drop them in a familiar place, because then I'm not constantly questioning whether I have the details right or if the dialogue is realistic for that region. When my inner critic is second-guessing everything I write, it makes it hard to keep putting words on the page.

lainey bancroft said...

Ah, the beach. Well said. That is precisely why I set my novel Cozumel Karma in...(big surprise) Cozumel! My straight-laces heroine needed a place to relax, be someone else and let her hair down.

And lol, E.A, Jacquie asked a tough question. I'm with you, the more familiar, the better. Not necessarily because I'm lazy about research, quite the opposite, sometimes I can get so 'into' researching and finding the exact right detail that days go by! I don't have time for that!

MAGGI said...

Your characters have to fit comfortably into that world you create for them, don't they? Great blogpost.
Maggi

Kathleen O said...

Loved your blog. I have never been to Ohio, but your feel for the place makes me want to visit this state one day. I have been to it's neighbour PA many time, but have never crossed over those state lines.

Laurean Brooks said...

E.A.,

I put a lot of research into 1938 Chicago while writing "Journey To Forgiveness." The online pics of the windy city in that time period were beautiful.I saved them. I've never been to Chicago, but my mother lived there from 1938 to 1941, ot that helped.

The story is based on her life. She took the train from rural Tennessee to the northern Windy to find employment when her family went through hard times. She said she never missed the rolling hills and trees of Tennessee until she moved north.

My mother told me that she didn't notice a distinguishable difference in accent until the stop-over in Champaign, Illinois. There the passengers spoke the Northern dialect.

I tried to make the story as realistic as possible. For one thing, my heroine calls the hero a Klutz. I researched and found out the term was first used in the late 30's.

The research takes time, but it makes the story and characters more realistic.

Thanks for posting this blog. It gets you to thinking. And as writers, we need the old noggin jostled.

Laurean

Danielle Thorne said...

I love traveling and learning about the small towns we cross through. There is inspiration for settings all around us.

She said...

You are so right about making sure you are familiar with a place. It drives me crazy when an author sets the story somewhere I am familiar with but I can't identify it because he/she has no idea of where places are or how people talk or dress in that area. Someone is always sure to call an author on it. Same thing with TV shows.

MarthaE said...

I like your comments. I do think it helps to be familiar with a setting as it will be easier to portray... either that or you have to research it well which you would for a historical time period. Realism is important even in a fantasy it has to "fit" the story and characters.

Linda Banche said...

A story has to fit its era, and scenery as well as manners, mores and language is part of the "fit". People in the past didn't react to things the way we would, and we have to remember that.

Babyblue22 said...

You are so right!!
It has to be a realistic setting if it's in a realistic place and time.
I think it's great your stories are set mostly in places your familiar with, I think a story that's true to it's setting are more enjoyable.
~Afshan
Afshan522@aol.com

Monya Clayton said...

First your comment about 'beach' setting touched the right button for me, since my own book Blueprint For Love is set in a sub-tropical Queensland (Australia)resort area which is familiar to me.

Then again, I researched a historical set in colonial USA as well, and it's a good thing I enjoy the research and love history.

The 'Ohio' State thing rings true for Australia as well. Only six States and one Territory in an area the size of the mainland U.S., but we have the same thing. Differences in the way we speak, even think, different football codes, different habits. For instance, in South Australia no-one actually goes for a walk much. It's too cold and wet in winter and too hot and dry in summer! In Queensland we pretty much live outdoors as much as we can.

Enjoy your writing!

pams00 said...

I liked your post. I agree that setting matters and how it is described is important.

I think well researched locations really shows though in a story and helps to build it.

Pam S
pams00@aol.com