So you’ve decided to set your book in a faraway place, one to which you’ve never been.
Image: graur razvan ionut / freedigitalphotos.net
Perhaps, or maybe your imagination conjured up a story that doesn’t fit in the cozy suburb you’re used to. If you want your setting to seem authentic, you’ll have to learn a bit about it.
Does your location have mountains? If so, are they craggy peaks with snow and alpine meadows, or are they lower and tree-covered? Or is it flat, with views for miles around? Can your characters see that huge tornado coming?
Speaking of tornadoes, if you set a story in the Midwest in the spring, you might want to consider this. A perfect March and April? Just doesn’t happen here. Summers are hot and humid; winters tend toward cold, damp, and blustery.
The weather affects your characters. What they wear will depend on it. They’ll probably check the radar before they decide to drive up to the hunting cabin. You can build the weather into your conflict. Maybe brothers Randy and Art have been circling around an issue for a long time. A snowstorm strands them in the cabin for a few days? Perfect time for a confrontation!
Distance and transportation
Distances have to make sense. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King pointed out one of his own mistakes, something he did in his novel ‘Salem’s Lot. He said he had Ben and Susan hop in the car and go to a film in a particular real-life location, coming back that same night. From where he had located his fictional town, they would have had a three-hour drive one way.
Image: Mike Segar/Reuters via The Atlantic
Many smaller U.S. cities don’t have great public transport either. A poverty-stricken character won’t have a car; you’ll have to work out the logistics of where she works (if she’s working) and how she gets there. Her finances will affect her transport issues, which will affect how far she can go from home.
Things to do
Where would your characters go for an evening out? If you put them in Freeport, Kansas (population 5), they’re not likely to find the opportunity to glam up for a theater date downtown. Characters who grew up in a cosmopolitan area of London probably never learned how to feed chickens.
You’ve got the basis for a fish-out-of-water story if you want to move a Londoner to Freeport.
Image: Vitolef / freedigitalphotos.net
If you’re going to make up a place, you’ll still have to consider these elements and more. Layout, neighborhoods, proximity to other locations–all will have to be solid in your head so that when you move people around, you’ll avoid putting them in impossible positions.
Get your geography sorted so your characters can stretch their legs.
Another point one could bring up with geography is whether or not to put in a map or maps of the area your book takes place in. I do love it when authors have a map for you to look at.
That’s a lot of fun for a made-up place! I wish I could draw; I’d love to do that for a fantasy novel if I wrote one. Or for the city I made up for Rose’s Hostage, Ralston Illinois. It and the surrounding area are cemented in my head. I’d like to be able to illustrate them.
On Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 9:43 PM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:
Yes, YES, I love maps in books too. They just bring it more alive. It doesn’t even have to be a particularly large or intricate map.
I also love (if it’s a book that spans generations of a family) having a ancestry chat thing.
That’s always cool too, the ancestry thing. Like a family tree diagram so you can quickly glance at it and go, “Okay, Cecily Willowby is married to Portia Arngrim’s niece’s son Farquar” if you get confused.
On Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 12:49 PM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:
I stumbled across your blog today from the A to Z challenge, I love your posts so far! So much good information. I aspire to be a writer, all though these days my life is consumed by illustration homework… however I was planning on pulling out one of my old stories from the depths of my computer this summer and start writing again ^^ Your blog is a fantastic resource! I’m so excited to read more.
Ooh, illustration; that’s cool. I always wished I could draw and design, but I’m all thumbs at it.
On Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 1:24 AM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:
Geography is in the mind is most awesome when done properly.
It’s more awesome IN the mind, too, because you can put an ocean right next to a highway in the middle of the continent, if you like! :D
On Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 10:47 AM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:
I collect a series called the Chalet School (children’s boarding school) and you can see the problems with geography within the series – ok, there were other factors such as the length of the series (58) and the age of the author towards the end but the earlier books were set in Austria and the UK. These have great details and local colour. When the author decides to move the school to Switzerland, it really shows the detail of the geography was mainly from books and not from being their herself. Which is a shame, really. It becomes very insular and lacks characteristics of the books in the beginning.