When writing any fictional work, the author has to create a setting. Even if all the action takes place in one room, the author needs to make the room appear real and convincing. And usually, a setting is much larger than one single room, whether it is a grand country house, a quaint village, a ship in the middle of the ocean or a space station located in a distant nebula. The physical space ascribed to a story is essential for the characters to exist: without a setting, the story just wouldn’t come alive in the imagination of the reader.
But as authors, we have a dilemma: is it better to use a fictional setting, or to set a story in a ‘real’ place?
Some authors love to set their works in a real place. In times past, when the average person didn’t travel afield very far, books set in foreign lands were exotic and almost as exciting as taking a trip yourself. The author could conjure the sights and smells, slipping in cultural references such as language, mannerisms, behaviours, and traditions, then adding layer upon layer of experience for the reader by including descriptions of places and geographical features they might never see. You could find yourself in a desert, or on a mountain-top, at the bottom of the sea with Jules Verne or travelling by mule to an isolated archeological dig in an Agatha Christie novel.
For the author, there are advantages to using a real location for a book. To begin with, it makes the surroundings easier to describe, if you only have to look out of your door, or bring up images on the Internet. It’s easier to keep track of your characters, especially in a crime story where you have to create alibis and where there is a need to account for a character’s movements or whereabouts at any given time. And because the author is describing a real place, it’s easier for them to keep their details accurate, and therefore they seem all the more convincing, giving the reader a sense of being in a ‘real’ place.
But there are disadvantages to this too.
To begin with, the real geography or setting might not work with your story, and if you include things that don’t exist, your readers will not be happy. And trust me, they will notice! Equally, real towns or country houses are vulnerable to change—once again change might mean that your story no longer works, or is less convincing, or just doesn’t interest the reader as much.
Another problem is the rise of Literary Tourism, or as I call it, the ‘Morse’ effect—this is where readers love a setting so much they want to go there and see it for themselves, and sometimes do this is large numbers, like tourists visiting the city of Oxford to follow in the steps of Colin Dexter’s creation, Inspector Morse. As we all know, a little tourism is a good thing—it boosts local economy and provides jobs, not to mention selling books or TV shows and making everyone happy. But a lot of tourism can breed resentment in a locality if it causes inconvenience, or even environmental damage. Visitors may throng about a particular spot that features in a book and this can be unacceptable for a number of reasons. And what if the author is highly critical or disparaging about a particular real place? I don’t see that book, or its enthusiasts being welcomed with open arms.
For me, the setting is a useful, nice-to-have but not essential part of my books. The main emphasis is on character and events. So do forgive me if my settings a sometimes a bit ‘samey’. In this way, I sometimes build my fictional country house as an amalgamation of all the other, real-life country houses I’ve visited, not faithful at all to one specific building.
I personally prefer this ‘Midsomer Murders’ approach—have a fictional area within a real part of the country. This is the glorious middle ground, where you loosely build your story on what is actually there, but do the typical author thing of ‘changing the names to protect, etc, etc’. This way you can create the sense of a real place with all the quirks and characteristics of that place, but which is as flexible as the author needs it to be. You can incorporate any number of variations to fit your future works as well as the one you have on the go at the moment. And best of all—no one will ever be able to say, ‘In chapter four, you have the car park at the end of the road by the pier, but in fact it’s actually at the opposite end of the town.’
All you need to do is remember where all the features of your fictional town are. I suggest drawing a map. Otherwise, the same reader will be able to say, ‘In chapter four, the car park is at the end of the road by the pier, but in chapter seven, you’ve put it at the other end of the town.’ And by the time you get to this stage, it probably would have been easier to use a real place, after all.