Does Your Novel's Setting Inspire You?

Vikram Seth: I don't pick and choose subjects or settings; they pick and choose me.

Some folks argue that setting is more important in some novels than in others, but I would respectfully disagree...

A novel about an expedition to the South Pole, for example, might on the face of it have a far stronger sense of place than a novel set in an office. But, written well, the office novel can have just as strong an atmosphere as the novel set in the wilds of Antarctica.

But only if the office setting inspires the writer.

Setting Comes From the Soul

"What has fascinated me for a long time now is the relationship between a locale and the lives lived there, the relationship between terrain and the feelings it can call out of us, the way a certain place can provide you with grounding, location, meaning, can bear upon the dreams you dream, can shape your view of history, sometimes your sense of self."
- James D. Houston

Everybody has a place that truly inspires them, that somehow makes them feel more alive whenever they are there.

For me, that place is Cornwall in the far south-west of England. I love the remoteness and the gentler pace of life there. I love the smell of the soil on wet days and the eye-blue skies in summer. I love walking along the cliffs then dropping down into the ramshackle fishing villages for lunch in a centuries-old pub. (I could go on indefinitely but I won't bore you any more.)

That's why I set a lot of my fiction there. Since my earliest memories of childhood holidays there, Cornwall has seeped its way into my bones. Unconsciously, that allows me to write about the place with passion... and doing that helps the readers to feel the setting in their bones, too.

If I set my fiction in London, I wouldn't be able to pass on the magic of that city to the readers because, in all honesty, I don't feel it myself. And you can't fake it.

Whenever I visit London (or any city), I can't wait to get out. Too many people moving too fast, too much traffic, too much noise – I hate those things. Cities don't inspire me one little bit, so I'm hardly in a position to inspire readers when I write about them (I'll leave that to the city-loving writers).

Of course, it would be fine for me to set a novel in London if I wanted the novel's protagonist and the readers to share my sense of noise and dirt and the crazy pace of life. But if I wanted the main character and the readers to find London vibrant and alive, I'd have to fake it. And that doesn't work.

Setting Is More Than Place

Setting is a lot more than just the streets and buildings. And guess what? You need to be inspired by every aspect of your setting if you want to inspire the readers of your novel.

If the cut and thrust of a courtroom battle truly excites you, you'll be able to pass that excitement onto your readers. If courtrooms terrify you, your readers will share in that terror. But if you have no strong feeling about courtrooms and court cases one way or the other, don't write a courtroom drama.

If you don't feel passionate about the setting you write about, the setting will be as flat as a painted backdrop.

If classic cars are not your thing, don't give your central character an E-Type Jaguar to drive. Give them a car that excites you - one with all the latest gizmos to play with, perhaps.

If you love fly fishing or football or sky diving, make one of those things your protagonist's love. Or if you hate them, make the protagonist hate them, too. Either way, you will be able to pass on that passion, through your character, to the readers.

To illustrate, here is a brief extract from Alice Hoffman's Here on Earth. I could have picked any number of books off my shelves to illustrate what I have been talking about, but I happen to be reading Here on Earth right now, and its opening paragraph inspired this article.

The novel is set in a small New England community called Jenkintown. I don't know that part of the world, so I don't know for sure that the following description is an authentic one. All I know is that Hoffman is passionate about her setting (and must therefore be knowledgeable about it), because you cannot fake an opening paragraph like this...

Tonight, the hay in the fields is already brittle with frost, especially to the west of Fox Hill, where the pastures shine like stars. In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, gray with a purple edge. At this time of year, these woods are best avoided, or so the local boys say. Even the bravest among them wouldn't dare stray from the High Road after soccer practice at Firemen's Field, and those who are old enough to stand beside the murky waters of Olive Tree Lake and pry kisses from their girlfriends still walk home quickly. If the truth be told, some of them run.

Learn to evoke the setting in your novel as powerfully as that and you won't go far wrong.