Setting, the time and place in which a work of fiction occurs, is a crucial element in a novel.
In the words of Eudora Welty : “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place.”
Have you read a novel where a few pages into the book, you feel that you have forgotten where the story takes place, and you have to go back to the first few pages? On the other extreme, I had read books where the description of the place was so detailed and long I started to get bored.
The trick, I suppose, is to get it just right so that the setting is described sufficiently, and inserted seamlessly into the story. I attended a talk on “Setting and Story “ at the recent Los Angeles Book Fair where a panel of writers shared their experiences and perspectives on setting.
Kevin Keating has just released his debut novel The Natural Order of Things. It comprises 15 interconnected stories set in a decaying Midwestern urban landscape. He said that he learned and has been influenced by the works of writers such as Charles Dickens and Graham Greene who were masters at creating a sense of place. Dickens, in particular, was a master of describing the setting of the working class and one of urban decay.
Jami Attenberg, author of three novels including The Middlesteins said that she was interested to find one wonderful detail in the setting, one thing that is thematically right.
Michael Lavigne, the author of Not Me and The Wanting said that he was greatly influenced by E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, in which the setting was critical to the story.
(I studied “Passage to India” as part of our English Literature syllabus. Guided by a superb teacher, Miss Tan, Forster’s setting became memorable. And the scene that somehow made the deepest mark was the courtroom scene with the punka wallah, a worker who manually operates the fan, and its symbolism.)
Lavigne also said that he prefers to set his story in a time setting of about 10 to 20 years back, as he would have a better sense and understanding of the background and events.
This point came up in my mind when I recently read a contemporary crime thriller.
The cell phone played a big role in the story. The detectives were calling each other and emailing data from the phone from various locations. In some parts of the story, the narrative was greatly impacted by a missed call, or a cell phone flung out of reach. It wasn’t so long ago that the mobile phone had no role in the flow or narrative of thrillers.
The panel left a few pointers for the writer who has decided on the setting for his or her novel.
The authors felt that it was necessary to visit the place or location where one’s novel would be set. Take photos too, if that would help. Talk to the people, and get to know them really well, added Keating. That would also enable you to pick up nuances and particularities of their speech.
Lavigne added: “When you use setting from your experience and memory, you will know when it is authentic on the page.
“In good writing, the setting reveals itself, the way the characters do, at the right place.”