Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Choosing the Setting of a Novel

Welcome, Nicki, as she stops by on her blog tour for Three Daves. Until September 30, Three Daves and other school-related titles are only 99 cents in Kindle, Nook, eBook, and ePub as part of the Omnific Publishing Back-to-School sale.  If you’re a book reviewer, A Tale of Many Reviews has opened up sign-ups for a Three Daves paper book tour.

I personally took advantage of this great deal. I have my copy of Three Daves waiting on my Kindle for me to read.  I love the new cover!!

Today Nicki and I discuss how writers choose their settings.

First, Nicki:

I doubt many people think of Central Illinois as a very exciting place.  And the truth is…er, it’s not.  But somehow that didn’t stop both me and the exciting Karen G from choosing the cornfield clustered metropolis as a setting for our stories.  So for my guest post today, we’re going to explain ourselves and tell you just why, out of all the places in the world, Central Illinois was the preferred backdrop for telling our tales. 

My first decision regarding the setting for Three Daves was that it had to be a college campus.  There’s really no other time in life quite like those undergrad days—it’s the perfect combination of  being free from the watchful eye of parents and yet still not having to face up to all the responsibilities of adulthood. 

When describing places, I’m often inspired by where I’ve been—the old “write what you know.”  But also, my alma mater, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, IL, was the perfect campus off of which to model my fictional Central Illinois University precisely because it was so isolated from any major distractions, keeping the focus on the students and their mutating relationships. 

The mid-size of the EIU campus was also ideal as it allowed for much criss-crossing of paths.  You never know exactly when each Dave’s story has ended—any one of them could pop back in when you least expect it.  But I admit to getting a little stir crazy in that sea of corn, and so I sent my main character on a few side trips.  It wouldn’t be college in the 80s without a spring break in Daytona Beach, after all. ;)   

Okay, Karen—your turn.  Why’d ya do it?

My two novels Uncut Diamonds and House of Diamonds are loosely based on my own life, and they are set in Jacksonville, Illinois, where my husband and I basically started out our married life. I considered fictionalizing the name of the town and then decided not to. Especially in Uncut Diamonds, the town and the houses where the McGills live are almost like characters themselves, so I decided to keep it authentic.

I was born and raised in Central Illinois and although I now live in Utah, the cornfields, huge trees and river country of Downstate Illinois (what everyone calls it to distinguish it from Chicago) are what feels like home to me. I went to college there and so did my sisters. In fact, one of my sisters graduated  from Eastern Illinois University, the setting of Three Daves. When I found out the setting of Nicki's book, I knew I just had to read it!

Setting is really important to me in choosing what books I read. I'll buy a book simply based on the setting! I love to read about places both familiar and foreign to me.

How about the rest of you readers and writers? Writers, how do you choose your settings? And Readers, what kinds of settings do you enjoy in books?


  1. "Writing what you know," this must be why all Greg Iles books take place in Louisiana. It's also why I write all my books in Northern Virginia. Go figure.

  2. I live in Dublin, Ireland so I instinctively want to set my books here, because it's what I know best.

    Unfortunately, I live in a country with a small population and an even smaller market for books, so I am trying to experiment with more internationally-friendly settings.

  3. You're absolutely right--and I think even unexciting places in reality can make interesting settings once you get really deep into the place and the people who live there.

    I'm a fantasy writer, so when I want to make a setting feel realistic, instead of just picking a specific place, I pick a place AND a time period--or several, and blend them together. I actually just wrote about setting on my blog yesterday from a fantasy perspective.

  4. As always, Karen, interesting and informative post.

    The main setting in my novel is in Charleston, WV. I've lived here for some time now and know the city. It has all the amenities of a metropolis with a small town feel. Since the two other venues in my story required a lot of research, (The Mayans, Yucatan in the 16th century & Washington, D.C.) I decided to go with what I knew.

  5. Plot and characters usually come first for me, then I pick a setting that enhances those things...but for my recent WIPs, I've become obsessed with a setting first! I have no idea why, but the Lake District in England has just been calling to me. I've checked about 6 books out from the library and am really enjoying immersing myself in the setting (or maybe I'm just procrastinating :))

  6. Andrea, This setting appeals to me, esp it's proximity to Washington DC, not to mention the old world Southern feel of Charleston, and the economic diversity there.

    Alexandra, You fantasy writers have it so easy! LOL just kidding, I can't imagine how hard it would be to create an entire existence.

    Ellen, Are you kidding? Who wouldn't want to read a novel set in Dublin? You have one of the greatest most intriguing cities at your fingertips. I'm jealous.

    Angela, The South lends itself to wonderful settings in books.

    Nikki and I took on a difficult task-- how to make central Illinois into a setting that works to appeal to readers-- hopefully we succeeded despite the lack of romance and interest in the corn belt of the nation!

  7. Jess, Here's my dream. Set my books someplace like England, Italy, Ireland or France and then because I write what I know, I have to go spend 6 months to a year in each setting to make it real. The Lake District in England sounds good, it would fit into my plan hehe.

  8. I imagine places I've been, or lived so I can write with authenticity...but then swap things around and add in things that were never there. It's fun.

  9. i usually write what i know....or what inspires me, like places i want to visit.

  10. That's an awesome dream, Karen. Jess, I love that you take the time to immerse before jumping into the writing. NOT procrastination - research!

    I agree w/ Karen about Dublin being a great setting for you, Ellen. I don't know anyone who doesn't want to visit Ireland someday and through you we could vicariously do that! (On a side note to Ellen, Carol Oates is an Irish author w/ two novels out and I know she struggles w/ the smaller book market there, but she's a sharp chick & has learned a lot so you might want to look her up - she has a blogger account).

    Andrea and Angela - glad to see you embrace the "write what you know." As a reader I appreciate the authentic insights and feel of a setting that only a true resident can give.

    Alexandra - how funny that our great minds are thinking alike and posting about setting. ;) I like your approach to adding a realistic feel to your settings and will be by to check out your post.

    Thanks all for stopping by, and THANK YOU Karen for having me. :) Working on this post w/ you was fun.

  11. Oh yes, Liza creative license is a must for me too! That's why I base settings on real places but give them fictional names---gives me room for play. ;)

    Amie - seems I can't write a story without my characters taking a places I want to go.

  12. Most of my stories are set in Chicago, because Chicago's been my hometown for several years now. It's easier to write this way because I don't have to do as much research. Also, I can pick actual places in the city, like Grant Park or the Art Institute, for certain scenes. It's easier for me to picture what it's like since I've already been to those places several times.

  13. As a reader,I'm sitting in the middle between reading stories set in the familiar or unfamiliar. The setting doesn't matter as long as the story holds my attention.

    But as a writer, I can imagine that authentic projection comes from writing about the familiar.

  14. I have a fondness for central Illinois. The novel that I'll probably work on during NaNo will probably have much of the action occurring in central Illinois. I'm thinking of writing a part 2 of my still unfinished last year's NaNo novel which mostly took place in Chicago, but included a trip to Cairo, IL during which the protagonist does some contemplating about farmers and cornfields. Part 2 will be a dystopian view of Illinois and will once again involve a journey from Chicago to Cairo, but with much more Central Illinois action. That's what I'm thinking right now anyway.

    Tossing It Out

  15. 'so I sent my main character on a few side trips.'

    Always nice when characters go on a little day trip or for a weekend away. I quite like that. :)

    As for my books they are all set in a 'Medium-Sized Desert Town' which is an amalgam of my hometown, the city I live in now and pure imagination.

  16. Great post. I love reading No1 ladies' detective agency because i learned so much about the country, customs, language, idioms and culture from them. It's fun reading about places you know too.

  17. My WIP is set in the blue collar suburbs of Baltimore. Not an "exciting" setting, per se, but the area has a unique personality. That's where I grew up, so I know the area and its personality quite well.

    As for Ellen's comment about Dublin ... OY! If she can dish up an accurate picture of life in that part of the world, I believe readers will eat it up! Because life in Dublin is alien to most of us is exactly why most of us would find reading about it so appealing.

  18. How cool you both chose the same setting. I can relate to a Midwest setting. I've lived in Ohio most of my life (with brief stops in Indiana and Washington state for grad school) but I like to set my stories in vacation locales I frequent. I chose "upstate Illinois" (Chicago) for my series because when I visit my sisters there, it seems larger than life. There's the thrill of the big city. Another place I love to visit is Florida, the setting of my YA novel coming out next year. I love the beach!

  19. What a coincidence that you both wrote about central IL. How fun for both of you.

    I wrote my first novel based on the town I grew up in just outside of NYC. I added a fantastic fantasy world inside a Willow tree grove edging the town.

    On my second novel I took a boy out of Southern California and brought him to the deep south for his final year in high school. I needed two totally different geographical locations for the tension to be right.

    I always do extensive research if I choose a location I have never visited. I always want the locations to be real for the reader.

  20. Hi Karen! I've had trouble commenting on blogs with embedded comment forms for months, but I think I've finally found a fix - sort of. It's good to be commenting on your blog again. Have a great week. :)

  21. Interesting you both selected Illinois.
    I went with a galaxy far, far away for a reason - my imagination can roam and no one can check on the details!

  22. Setting is very important for me. If I don't like the setting, I don't feel the story--not really. Love the post, guys.

  23. Neurotic, Chicago’s got SO many great mini-settings. I just had my character visit the Art Institute a couple chapters ago in my current WIP. :)

    Manzanita, I agree that story is most important – story and/or characters, is a tie for me.

    Welcome to the Central Illinois club, Arlee. ;)

    Sounds like a winning amalgam, Suze.

    Madeline, I do so love to learn about new places from reading. Sometimes I’ve even been inspired to plan my next trip there, as happened way back w/ Pelican Brief and New Orleans.

    Susan – that insider stuff if what I love about getting the scoop from a hometown writer.

    Hooray for Chicago, Jennifer, my Midwest friend. I can’t wait for us to get to meet up in real life. :)

    Michael, cool insight into why you chose your places.

    Congrats on the fix, Michelle

    Well, Alex, I did go w/ fictional names of places for the very reasons you name, hehe.

    That’s interesting, Clarissa. I’m going to have to think about whether a setting has ever ruined a story for me.

    Thank you all for stopping by! I love getting the lowdown on how you choose your settings and what you like as a reader.

  24. This has been an interesting topic, and judging by comments I'd say that setting isn't a story element that any writer should take lightly.

    Nikki, thanks so much for guest posting today and thanks for everyone for stopping by and commenting!

  25. I'm looking forward to reading Three Daves, which is sitting on my Nook. :)

    Although many of my settings are in outer space, they're based on places I've lived. Many have things in common with Central Oregon these days.

  26. Ha, Nicki! You made me laugh with the line about Central Illinois not being exciting (as I well know) - did I ever tell you I went to U of I Urbana?? Anyway, very cute interview! And even more fun, since I've read both your books!

    As for me, I pick settings like worlds in alternate dimensions and far in the future. Or possibly on cruise ships, because I love me some Luv Boat. LOL

  27. Very cool to see that you both write about Illinois. I'm from the Quad Cities but I live in Minneapolis, MN now.

  28. Oh gosh. Settings (and details) are SO difficult for me. Defining the setting and detailing it was the biggest challenge in writing my book. I really admire authors who can create realistic and detailed settings!

    Judy, South Africa

  29. as far as the types of settings I enjoy, any that are very well developed and a part of the story will do. I tend to choose settings I'm familiar with because I can describe them well... the beach, New Orleans, the backwoods of so-Miss... I hate having to research. LOL! :D

    Three Daves sounds great. Thanks, guys~ <3

  30. I think the setting not only is important but it can effect what the character does (seasons, elements, things like that).

    I'm so glad you mentioned about your book. I'm right in the middle and was wondering about the setting. It's so great! =)

  31. Central Illinois might not sound exciting to you guys, but to a reader (like me!) who's never been there, it's fun to read about an unfamiliar place!

    I try to choose a setting that I know a lot about. I don't want my lack of knowledge to show in the story, and setting is a huge part of most stories!

    By the way, love the Three Daves title. Awesome!

  32. I think up a setting pretty much when I start thinking up the characters and the plot. They all sort of weave together.

    Interesting topic! The creative process is so different for everyone. I love reading what other writers do.

  33. If the book is well-written any setting works for me. It's interesting to read about other parts of the world. Sometimes the author's familiarity with a location gets in the way, however. Kate Mosse's 'Sepulchre' really irritated me in that respect (and some others!)


Comments are welcome!