So you’ve got a cool story to tell, with a crafty plot. Great!
Now, where should you “put” it?
And does it really matter? Doesn’t Plot outrank Setting, like, totally?
Yes and no.
Where your story happens can have an enormous influence on everything from pacing and subplots, to secondary characters and their behavior.
Where your story happens can also make your books more memorable, especially in a series. I fell in love with Fort Lauderdale decades before I finally traveled there because that’s where Travis McGee’s houseboat, The Busted Flush, was moored: Slip f-18, Bahia Mar, Florida. I was thrilled, almost giddy, when we finally visited the actual location. (I’ve read the entire 21-book series three times, in order each time.)
Choose your setting carefully. Because it creates the foundation for your story, it also dictates or limits factors that can make a difference as your narrative unfolds. Things like —
- Seasons and weather: Will there be snow? Can you go surfing?
- Language and dialect: Will your characters talk funny, and use slang?
- Houses and buildings: Will there be grain elevators, or hi-rise elevators?
- Danger and tranquility: Will your characters face gang members, or crickets?
One of my favorite indie authors, Melinda Clayton, made a smart setting choice early in her writing career. She decided to use an area she knew from her childhood, despite the fact that she’d long since moved away. Clayton set her first series novel, Appalachian Justice, in a fictional coal-mining hamlet called Cedar Hollow, in West Virginia.
Did she know, when she made that choice, how powerful her setting would be? Maybe not. But now, four books into her Cedar Hollow Series, it’s obvious how the rural traditions and quirks specific to Appalachia created opportunities for superb storytelling. If Clayton had chosen instead to base her books in coastal Florida (near her current home), almost everything that followed would have changed — or never happened at all.
- What if Sherlock Holmes wasn’t British?
- — Or what if Jack Reacher was?
- Where would Joanna Brady be now, if not in Cochise County?
- Would we have 30-plus Sharon McCone mysteries today if she wasn’t from San Francisco?
If home is where the heart is, then Setting is where the start is. As you develop your story’s spark into a fully-fleshed plot, be careful where you ground the action. Take time to consider the long-term ramifications of your chosen setting. Make your places memorable, but not too limiting — yet certainly not too generic. Give your characters a foundation of deep-rooted backstory along with exciting possibilities for the future.
Most important of all, make your readers long to seek out the places you describe because you brought them to life so vividly. Those will be loyal readers indeed.
What’s your favorite novel series setting? Have you ever visited a location from a novel you treasured? I’d love to hear from you about memorable settings and related Novel Ideas. Share your thoughts in the Comments, below.
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