There are two types of settings you can use in your novels – real and imaginary.
Even made-up settings need to be researched. You must capture the feeling and tone of the town or setting and not get the reader lost in the description. There cannot be a river behind the main street, and then the same river is in front of Main Street later on in the same story.
If you make up your town, it will need to be placed somewhere on the planet. Wherever you chose to put the town, you will need to know about such things as the terrain, weather conditions, types of trees indigenous to the area, and road access in and out of town.
There have been several famous authors who’ve invented towns of their own. You know the story is believable when people actually plan to visit there while vacationing. I’ve read of this happening countless times.
When writing about real places, the streets and landmarks had better be in the right spot. When writing one of my books, I had to actually go to a specific intersection in the real town I was using to make sure the area was residential.
What if you use a real city, say Denver, but you make up a store? This is perfectly acceptable, but if that store is in a downtown site, then you had better make certain there isn’t a famous hotel that has been there for over a hundred years on that spot. Why? Because invariably, someone from Denver will read the book and notice a mom and pop shop where this famous hotel has always stood. A friend of mine recently read a story set in Denver, Colorado, and the author talked about the city being in the mountains. Anyone who’s done the bare minimum of research, not to mention all Coloradoans would know Denver is not in the mountains, but rather is on the flatlands just east of the mountains.
This could render the entire book unbelievable to the reader. There is a saying that if you have a good experience, you’ll tell three people. If you have a bad experience, you’ll tell ten. And with today’s Internet technology, blogs, groups, MySpace, Face Book, Twitter, chat rooms, etc., this bad news can spread like a wildfire.
Next, you must place your characters somewhere inside or around this town. Everyone lives somewhere, even the homeless. The immediate surroundings must be shown using vivid colors, textures, smells, sounds, and accoutrements. If your only description is that a male character is standing inside his study, holding a conversation with his niece, you’ll create a scene with “talking heads.” That is, the reader will have no frame of reference in which to place the characters. They’ll be talking, but we won’t be able to envision them. If you add even the simplest of descriptions, the story will take on a deeper “look” for the readers.
If this man is standing behind his huge, mahogany desk that has everything in exactly the same place as it always is, and he’s talking to his niece who has just entered the cozy room that smelled like her uncle’s cigars, and she stepped onto the Persian rug in front of the desk, you now have a better idea of where they are in relation to one another. You know how far apart they are standing, what’s in between them, and a room starts to come to your mind with the simple word “cozy.”
If the characters in this story will be spending time in this room, you may at some point want to tell what color the walls and curtains are and what other items are in the room. Does it reflect who the man is?
Next, we need to know where this room is located in the house. We need an idea of the layout or blueprint of the house. Suppose this uncle and niece get into an argument, and she storms out.
The next sentence shows her running across the lawn to a huge tree with a swing. How did she get outside? Did the room have an exterior door? Or did she have to go through a hallway, into the living room, and then outside? These details can be important so that the next time someone goes to that room from somewhere else in the house, we’ll have an idea of how all the rooms are connected. It gives us reference points such as how much time elapsed between point A and point B. Did sound travel through this house because of wooden floors, so is it possible to storm out of the house without someone else hearing her?
The setting is interconnected to the story in such minute detail, yet so many authors never describe where on the planet their characters are standing.
Others go overboard and spend several paragraphs describing a room that will never be mentioned again in the book.
Remember to write the detail of your setting in proportion to the importance of that setting to the story line.
Creating a believable setting will help make or break the story.