When you start thinking about the setting for your novel, you need to decide if the location is going to be fictional, real or somewhere between the two. For instance, I set my novel in the Scottish Highlands, so I wanted it to be as authentic as possible, but the actual village and area that the story is set in is fictional and based on several different locations.
I am going to focus here on advice for using a real location as I don’t write science-fiction or fantasy and feel no real need to completely make up the setting. Choose somewhere you know well or somewhere that you love and want to passionately research. If you can, visit the place and make as many notes as you can. When I travel to new places I tend to take a camera and notepad and make notes and observations anyway, even if my current project is not set there. You can look at pictures and maps and the history of a place online very easily, but to bring the story alive you really need to know what your setting is like from a sensory point of view. What sounds can you hear in that place? What can you smell? It is the details like these that can evoke emotions and memories of a place. I think I keep returning to Scotland in my writing because my childhood memories have made it idyllic and magical in my mind. I am also very interested in my Scottish ancestry and Scottish culture and folklore so this makes the research aspect all the more interesting for me – in fact I can get quite carried away with it. I love reading books that are set in exotic places such as in Japanese and Latin American literature. Of course to some readers, your home town might well seem exotic. Some books even influence where I go on holiday; after reading the evocative detail of New Orleans in Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, I made sure I visited there on a trip to the USA.
How much research and planning you put into your novel is obviously up to you, but I like to be quite thorough and find out about the climate of my setting (is it a seasonal place, and if so what season will your story be set in) and how that will influence my character’s clothing choices and transport, food and drink, culture and customs, names and surnames, some history as well as dialect and word choices that are unique to that region. As I said in my previous post about character research, you won’t necessarily be putting all this detail into your writing, but it can help you as a writer to imagine your setting better. You don’t want to bog your writing down with description but a sprinkling here and there can really immerse your readers in the world of your story. Close your eyes and imagine actually being there. I like to put together a scrapbook or pinboard of images related to the setting and even sometimes listen to a radio station local to that area.
There are also the interior settings that you need to consider. These spaces might define your character if it is their personal space, a bit like when you watch Through the Keyhole and try and guess who the home belongs to. Little things can give away clues about the character’s interests or past, without having to give away lots of exposition. You might describe your character’s bedroom or office. Is it tidy or a completely disorganised mess? How does that place make your character feel? If there is little natural light it might make them feel miserable. Do they have music, books or art on display? Any religious iconography? Perhaps a collection of unicorn ornaments or football paraphernalia.
The locations used in your writing might be of particular importance to your plot, such as the bus in the film Speed, or the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. In the latter, the hotel is so fully realised that it could arguably be the antagonist of the story. The location might be important due to the kind of atmosphere you want to create, or because of the genre of book you’re writing. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the fictional town of Forks in the Pacific Northwest is a perfect dwelling for vampires avoiding bright daylight as the area has heavy rainfall and is nearly always overcast. Think of how the location could enhance the conflict in your story. If you are writing a horror story, then an isolated place might help to raise the tension in your writing.
How does the setting affect your protagonist? You could ask questions to get ideas. Are they familiar with the place? Have they lived there all their life, or have they accidentally stumbled upon it, such as the children discovering Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? How do they feel being there? Comfortable and happy? Nervous? Why? What emotions or memories does the place evoke? What place do they have in the community there? If they know the setting, then where are their favourite places and why, and which areas do they go out of their way to avoid?
If you are really struggling with choosing a setting then perhaps do an exercise by planting your characters and plot into completely different places and see what works; a school, a city, a wasteland, a shopping mall, a village, a tropical island etc etc. Other factors would be the time setting of your story. Is it set in the past, present or future? If it is set in the past then you will have to do significantly more research, and you’ll have to decide how in-depth you want it to be.