Before John Harrison invented the marine chronometer, British ship captains had a very difficult time figuring out where they were, longitudinally speaking. Some explorers sailed the seven seas and discovered new islands . . . but were unable to find the islands on a return trip. That’s because they didn’t or couldn’t keep accurate records and descriptions. In many cases, they didn’t know where in the world they were.
Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy never had this problem. It was said of him that once he discovered something, he could always locate it again. Captain Cook mapped Newfoundland and was the first European to reach Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. Cook kept accurate records and was a highly skilled cartographer.
When you write fiction, make sure your readers know where they are. Depict your setting in a way that would have made Captain Cook proud.
Setting is very important to me — not just the setting I as a writer create, but setting I as a reader crave. And while some books on the craft and art of writing argue that setting can be emotional as well as physical, it’s physical setting that draws me in. A few examples of novels with gripping setting are Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer; William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!; Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women; and Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg.
Books on writing the novel stress the importance of establishing setting in the very first chapter. Some advocate the very first page. Establishing the setting is the major way the writer makes the reader comfortable within the book: the writer places the story, and thus the reader, somewhere definite. The reader knows what place she or he has stepped into. I personally hesitate to step into novels in which I have no idea whatsoever where I am. Not out of fear, but out of lack of interest — if I can’t identify setting, then I feel that things are happening in a vacuum.
When you’re writing a novel, it pays to be aware of both macro and micro setting from the very beginning: it’s somewhat difficult to go back, in a rewrite, and create a setting that resonates with the reader. In Absalom, Absalom! the macro setting is the Antebellum American South. The micro setting is Thomas Sutpen’s plantation.
When I’m writing a novel, I draw a diagram of the landscape (micro setting) that the characters walk and talk in. That setting might be a room, a building, or, as in the case of Sound Proof, a farm. Here’s the diagram I drew for Mary Ployd’s farm and festival grounds. (Robin Koontz improved my initial drawing so that I could use it within the pages of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.) While writing Sound Proof I kept this drawing above my computer, so that I could glance at it every time I needed to. If Frank Dragovic walked out the back door of the farmhouse, I knew that he had the vendor area ahead, the showers, vans, campers, and tents way off to the right, and the barn to his left. The creek separated the pole barn from the rest of the property, and so on. Knowing these things helped me envision Frank walking the grounds, looking around. It helped me imagine what he would feel, what he would smell, what he would hear.
As I wrote, I made a few changes in the buildings. For example, I moved the pigsty further from the vans and campers, and closer in the direction of the pole barn, though still separated from the pole barn by the creek. I needed to do that because I wanted Frank to stumble across the sty when he was returning from the pole barn after the big storm scene. Aside from a few changes such as that, this diagram helped me see and feel my setting very clearly.
I hope that when people read any of my novels, they experience the setting and thus know where in the world they are.