Question 3: WHERE
The setting of any given story is neither more nor less than context – and context matters a great deal. It determines what KIND of story may be told.
There are a lot of lists out there as to how many basic plots there are – if there are three, or ten, or twenty one. One of the lists comes up with only two: Someone Comes To Town, and Someone Leaves Town. By this definition, the “town” part of the equation is of paramount importance. Define the town, and you immediately define the kind of character who might be driven from that town, or might be drawn to it.
Sometimes that definition is part of a larger worldbuilding event, and it grows to the point that the setting of a story becomes almost a character in its own right. Think “Dune” – think about the fact that the entire story could not exist without the existence of a desert planet called Arrakis. Sometimes the setting is a frame – something that is sketched in just solidly enough to provide the perfect support for a story of heart and soul and the very nature of belief (one that comes to mind is “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” – the town is a sketch, but it is the thing that lies underneath its foundations which is a call to judgment. The story has a setting at the heart of it, but the setting is part of the metaphor for a transcendence.)
As with Omelas, you can use a setting as a compass which points to a larger issue or a moral or ethical or existential choice for the people coming and going from your town. In the Were Chronicles I deliberately did not name my setting – but it is fairly obvious through subtext that the place I call “the Old Country” is somewhere in Europe, probably Eastern Europe, or maybe Russia. It is fairly obvious, likewise, that the new land that my family comes to, the land of new hope and new opportunity, is an America seen through a mirror darkly.
I’ve been called to task for not overtly naming these things for what they purportedly are, with one reviewer implying that I was perhaps afraid to give True Names to places. But it was a deliberate decision, not naming these geographical settings. In one way, I was being perfectly open about their identities, for those who cared to take a deeper look; in another way, I was leaving an unmarked atlas for people to write their own countries into. There are places we can identify, to which we all privately belong or want to belong, which map onto these empty contours in individual ways – and we all have different parts on the map to which we ascribe the proverbial “here there be dragons”.
Creating a setting can be many things.
You can simply use what’s there, in stories firmly rooted in a realistic world, and place stories in literal streets which you yourself may have walked. A reader could go back to those places and find a specific crack in the pavement, if they so wanted. And there is something about setting a story in a place you yourself know well. It’s inevitably going to be seen through the prism of your own experience of it, naturally, and that cannot be helped – but there are solid, real, recognizable aspects to it which it gives both you and your reader a visceral pleasure to recognize and acknowledge.
You can invent and imagine EVERYTHING anew, and simply glory in creating a world which is wholly your own. Of course you have to be very good at this to carry it off completely. Every world has its rules, and if you’re creating yours from scratch you also need to create those rules – and then to live by them. You have to keep remembering that even in the greatest fantasy setting whatever some things still have a price – and your story may well end up revolving around whether your characters are willing to pay it.
Or you can split the difference, and you can start with that known and solid and real setting, and add a twist to it – something that makes it just a LITTLE out of true. I’ve done this on a number of occasions – the place called Spanish Gardens, from the book entitled “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, was real, and looked exactly as I described it, for instance. And in a similar way, the countries of which I write in the Were Chronicles are both very much based on real places, with only a few what-ifs thrown in to change things. The questions my settings in The Were Chronicles were built to ask were things like what freedom and liberty really are, whether it’s better to live in fear and in hiding (but free) or to exist in a place which uses your very identity, the thing you cannot change about yourself, to trammel you with rules and laws and discriminatory fiats in exchange for “safety”.
My setting is asking a huge question in the background of my story. I am not answering it, though. Not directly. I am putting out the parameters, and once you close the books, the answer lies in your own mind, in your own potential choices, in your convictions (and all I’ve done is given you information, and given you a story which exemplifies a certain set of those choices; I leave it up to you to agree, or not)
Whatever direction you choose to take, remember that your story is the precious stone centerpiece in a glorious piece of jewelry – but that the setting of that precious stone has a defining role to play in how the stone is shown off, and how it is supported. That makes a huge difference in how that gemstone shines.
Find out more about the Were Chronicles here.
WHEN, WHY, HOW to follow…