Saturday, March 1, 2014

Setting: Selection and Significance

By definition, every novel must have at least one setting. Even if a science fiction author were to write about a character floating around in a great abyss of nothingness, that abyss is still the place where things happen (or don’t happen, as the case may be). So how do writers choose the location for their story? How much does that choice matter to the story?

In my first novella, My Apple Tree, the setting was never specified for the reader. It could have been any town, really. The reality was that in my own mind the story was set in Joplin, Missouri, my mother’s hometown. The setting in this case was more important to me than the reader, and it definitely influenced the way I felt about the story and the choices I made concerning the plot and characters. After a devastating tornado leveled a third of the city, I went to visit my family there. What I saw had a profound impact on me, and that overwhelming mix of grief and rebirth was transferred to the story and my characters. So in that instance, the setting was very significant, but not in a way that the audience would necessarily be aware of. Normally, I would post pictures to illustrate my point. Although I do have pictures of the affected area, the devastation and loss these people faced is too personal to broadcast. However, the cover photo was taken at a nearby cemetery where much of my family is buried, and so that, too, has deep personal significance for me.

The significance of setting was flipped around for Wishing Cotton. For this story, the setting I envisioned was entirely fictional. I just needed a summer resort on a beach, with isolated cabins and a nearby funfair to suit the needs of my story. In other words, the setting was determined by the demands of the plot rather than the other way around. Beyond its function to support the story I wanted to tell, the setting has no further significance to me as a writer. Because of this, the only details I provide are ones that are necessary in order to present each scene clearly. Otherwise, the characters could be anywhere else and the plot could remain largely unaffected.

Setting again became important when I wrote my historical romance, The Truth Seekers. For this novel, I used a real-life location as the foundation for the story. Although I employ a great deal of artistic license, my protagonists Geoffrey Hawes and Miranda Claridge meet for the first time in an unnamed fictional community that is based on the very real Chautauqua Institution in New York State. 

Athenaeum Hotel

The grounds of this historic community preserve a great deal of the world that Geoffrey and Miranda would have inhabited, and the focus on philosophy, art, music, and learning lends itself to a novel of this type. It was simple to imagine two Victorian lovers debating the merits of different social and philosophical principles in such a setting. While I did change a number of minor details, such as turning the very real Packard Manor into the governor’s mansion, the architecture, landscape, and pace of the location are kept very true to life.

Geoffrey first encounters Miranda in the Hall of Philosophy, which not only is a real building on the grounds at Chautauqua, but also is the source of the book’s title. 


The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle is the longest continuously running book club in the United States, and for many years, each year’s theme was preserved in mosaics running along the floor of the Hall. Visitors to the Hall of Philosophy can easily find The Truth Seekers mosaic.

In many ways, my love of Chautauqua influenced my handling of Geoffrey and Miranda’s story, but at the same time, it would not have been possible to envision their story in the first place without having experienced the setting beforehand. This is a place where it is easy to picture what life must have been like one hundred years ago, and it is also a place where one can feel the passage of time and the natural continuity of life and love and time. A great deal of the grounds have remained largely unchanged and are teeming with artists, authors, poets, dancers, musicians, theologians, and thinkers. It would be near impossible for a creative person to be in such an environment and not be inspired. Because of this, The Truth Seekers became not only a love story between two people, but it is also the story of an author’s love for a place. I hope that by bringing Geoffrey and Miranda’s world to life, I have also captured in some small way the magic of this small, precious community.
Miller Bell Tower on Lake Chautauqua

In these three examples, you see how differently setting can be used to shape and influence a story and its characters. For writers, it is important to consider the role setting plays in a piece so that the handling of locations and environments complements the tale you are trying to tell. For readers, it is often a subtle influence that can color your perception of the world each new character inhabits. Either way, settings are something to enjoy and explore, even if only in one’s imagination.