Sholio (sholio) wrote in writers_lair,

Setting the scene

There's a "bullet-proof fic kinks" meme circulating right now. Mostly, I've just been reading other people's and commenting on them, in part because there's not a whole lot that really "pings" me that hasn't been mentioned somewhere on my friends list.

But I got into a discussion that made me realize one of my top bullet-proof kinks really hasn't been mentioned anywhere in the meme responses that I've seen, and that's a powerful sense of place. Actually, I hadn't realized how important it is to me as a reader, and how much a part of my writing, until I got to thinking about what really draws me to a piece of writing. I'd say it's character relationships first and foremost, and "place" second -- above, say, plot. (With allowance for exceptions, of course; a plot that really, truly throws me, but in a good way, or an idea that shakes up my worldview, trumps setting any day of the week. But as far as what I look for in fiction, and what I can guess from the first few pages, place is second only to character for me.)

I want fiction to transport me, and one of the things that I really need is to be transported somewhere vivid and concrete and fully realized. It doesn't have to be a real place; I think that one of the main reasons why SGA has held my fannish interest for so long is because I so love the location and the myriad story possibilities in its wide-open galaxy.

It's a real turn-off for me when a story takes place in generic anytown USA, or in some vague apartment somewhere. Even if the geographic location isn't specifically mentioned, or doesn't matter to the plot, it's really vital to me as a reader to be able to build up a sensory/mood picture of the characters' surroundings. This doesn't mean I want the writer to bog down in lavish descriptions of sunsets or factory smokestacks, but I want setting to be so integral to the story that you can't really remove it or set it somewhere else without making the story a subtly different thing.

And, of course, personal taste plays into it in a major way. Some sorts of settings draw me in just on premise alone, such as far-North locales and ancient ruins and rocky deserts; others are a harder sell for me, including suburbia and most common city settings. That sort of thing (random reader reaction) is not really something that the author has any control over, of course. Even if it's an often-done setting, though, or one that doesn't really interest me (a mansion, a movie studio, a white-sand beach) it can still get its hooks into me if the writer can really make it live on the page.

But what really makes a setting come alive?

There's the sense that the author knows their setting inside and out -- the little details, where you don't just drive down "a street" to "a restaurant", but you drive down THIS street to THIS restaurant, and it connects to this other street, and the place has a smell and the people have a particular sort of character .... this is maybe one of the big draws of detective fiction for me, because, as genre fiction goes, it often does have this kind of sense of reality and detail to its locations. You can read a good detective novel set in a strange town and feel like you could land there and be able to orient yourself just from the book, and I really like that. To some extent, the thrill I get from reading about a well-described place is the same thrill I get from reading anything that teaches while entertaining -- I don't want to read about generic anycop but rather about a specific precinct written by someone who knows how cops operate, and I don't want to read about a generic anytown but rather about Chicago or Athens or Anchorage.

And, a good setting has a mood. A lot of my stories begin with a plot idea and a vivid sense-mood-image -- for example, in "Running on Empty" (which I often use because it's such a great example of this) I had the idea of Sheppard and McKay as runners, and I paired this with the memory of exploring Abercrombie State Park on Kodiak Island in October -- the abandoned WWII bunkers lost among towering pine trees, the sharp crisp air with sunlight slanting between the moss-covered trunks, the slightly wistful feeling of abandonment and grandeur and autumn fading into winter. In the end, at least if I didn't talk about it all the time, I don't think any reader would ever have the slightest clue what specific place I used for the world in "Running", especially since Kodiak, as an island, is practically defined by the ocean and the setting for "Running" is very definitely inland, but the feeling is pretty much what I based the story around, and it's very intrinsically tied up with place for me.

Probably because I grew up in Alaska, I'm really drawn to (and enjoy writing about) places that are wide and empty and beautiful and have very little use for human beings at all (and yet where humans, or humanlike things, nonetheless exist). I'm really drawn to that particular feeling in all its many flavors -- deserts at sunrise and oceans at dusk and fallen stone towers and city skyscrapers lit up at night.

But, on the flip side, if a writer can deliberately summon a claustrophobic image and draw it close around their characters, I'm also very much there -- I love stories that limit themselves to a single unchanging, inescapable setting (a cave, a locked room) and then force all their action to play out within those confines.

And there's one more thing I can think of that makes a setting come alive for me -- just as I find myself getting hooked into a character through the tension between their flaws and their better side, so I'll get caught up in a writer showing me the darker side of paradise or the beautiful edge to a setting that someone else might consider ugly or banal. And I want to see the little paradoxical, surprising things, the things that I don't expect. Unexpectedness, paradox, the contrast between light and darkness -- all of this makes a created world feel real to me.

So, how about you? Is setting something that's really important to you as a reader and writer, or do you maybe bundle it under a broader umbrella (like "character development" or "theme")? Or, on the flip side, does place matter for you not at all -- do you read for the human interactions, or something else, no matter the venue?

How do you develop a sense of place in your writing? Do you often draw from places you've been, or from your imagination? Do you find it harder or easier to make up a place whole-cloth than to describe somewhere real?
Tags: .advice, .question, setting
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