I’ve just finished reading a collection of short stories whose author and title shall remain nameless, except to say that they were all set in one manner or another in my home state. Now, I’ve read many stories set in rural New England, some period, some modern. Some, like H. P. Lovecraft’s, evoke place in such a concrete manner that I can’t help but see myself in those places. A very fine example is Pickman’s Model, where the feel of Newubry Street and the North End of Boston is visceral to the point that I can imagine the smell of veal scalopini cooking in the background. Another good example is Brunonia Barry’s book, The Map of True Places which evokes Salem to the point that I could see myself on Derby Street near the House of the Seven Gables looking up at the widow’s walk of her fictional house, smelling the salt air.
So, it pains me to no end when I read something so uninformed in setting that I not only can’t picture the town it’s supposedly set in, but realize the story could be set anywhere in the rural northeast by simply changing the name of the town in the story.
This leads me to consider what the true purpose of setting is in story. Books on writing generally say the same things about setting, which is that it should reflect the story in some manner, and that it should also reflect the action. I don’t feel that this really goes far enough. In my view, setting should be considered carefully from two perspectives. Those are: how it serves the story; and authenticity.
Serving the Story
The setting for a scene, as well as the overarching story setting, should support the story in two ways.
First, it should reflect the mood of the main or viewpoint character in the scene. By this, I don’t necessarily mean that if the character is gloomy, they should be in a darkly lit circus tent, although if the story involves dark and lonely side show performers, that would work. Instead, make the setting gloomy to match the character’s inner turmoil: an early February evening on a wind-swept beach, with darkness closing in, not even the sound of a seagull to pierce the scattering sound of sand.
Second, the setting should match the action of the scene. If the scene is a confrontation between two characters, conflict can be heightened by placing them in an active environment. For instance, an argument resulting in a major break between characters can take place at the entrance to a department store downtown, the Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell loudly while shoppers and commuters hustle by, nearly knocking the characters over, cutting between them, and punctuating the disagreement with street noise. Similarly, if the scene has a character reflecting over another character who loves books, a quiet spot, such as the cafe at a book store, or the reference room at a library might work, with the announcement of the book store closing, or the grandfather clock in the library chiming to break the end of the scene, respectively.
If a setting is being used for a reason, it needs to be described authentically. Simply by stating that a character walks into a store can be fine if the point is to bridge two other scenes. But if something substantial happens in that store (and something substantial had better happen in that store: scenes should never be included unless it furthers the plot) the store needs to be described in a way that is authentic, especially if it is a real non-fiction environment. This doesn’t mean it has to be described physically, but it needs to at least have an emotional component authentic to the store. Things like how the florescent lights bleach the walls, the fragrance counter exudes ambergris and vanilla, the grey carpeting chafes rubber soles underfoot, are all details that can build emotions like coldness, sexuality, or irritation, respectively. But if the store doesn’t have carpets or florescent lighting, or sell perfumes, don’t include it for effect.
Similarly, towns, neighborhood, or other real locales shouldn’t be used for a setting just because it happens to be a famous spot, or a place the writer always wanted to visit. A lack of authenticity in describing a real locale rings of amateurish writing skills, and is insulting to those readers familiar with the real world place who don’t recognize it in the writing.
Which brings me full circle to the reason I wrote this in the first place. The piece I read was insulting to me because I have been in many of the places it claims to be set in, but it rang false for two different reasons. One was the lack of description of the actual setting. Because of this, I remained unanchored to the story — it felt like it could have occurred anywhere. The other was the stories’ descriptions of landmarks that didn’t exist in the setting — the story not only didn’t happen where it claimed to have happened, but most definitely occurred somewhere else.
How did this change my experience of the stories? I found the attempt at anchoring the stories to a place distracting at best. At worst, the disconnect between the described setting and the actual setting undermined the authority of the writer, and made me turn ahead to see how many pages were left in the story. In a case like this, the story probably would have been best served by using a fictional place name, or altogether leaving the name out.