Welcome to Shop Talk! If you’re new to the blog, “Shop Talk” is where we chat about trends in fiction or things we do or don’t like in the fiction we read. I have to admit, after reading a blurb for an upcoming book on a horse-shifter, I was tempted to bring up the subject of odd shifters again. But we’ll save that for another day! As always, commenting in a Shop Talk discussion enters you for a $10 Amazon gift card (or equivalently-priced book from Book Depository–BD really needs to offer GCs!).
Today, the topic is Setting. To me, whether it’s sci fi, or fantasy, or urban fantasy, or paranormal romance, the setting in speculative fiction is more important than in any other genres. Used most effectively, the setting becomes a character, as inseparable from the story as the hero or heroine.
Each author approaches his or her settings in different ways, but there are basically three choices: real-world setting, fictional setting, or a setting of fictional locations within a real setting.
In the spec fiction genres, we see this most often in urban fantasy (or as I’m preferring to call it these days, paranormal fantasy, since it’s no longer just set in urban areas). A few examples: In the Dresden Files series, Jim Butcher uses Chicago as a setting really well. I still giggle when I think about Harry animating a dinosaur skeleton at the Field Museum and riding it down Michigan Avenue. In the Mercy Thompson series, Patricia Briggs uses the tri-cities area in Washington State to flavor her stories. Actually, she probably uses the settings even more intrinsically in the Alpha and Omega series. What other real-world places do you think the authors use effectively? (Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if you don’t know the area well. For example, Kim Harrison uses Cincinnati in her Hollows series, but I don’t know the Cincy area well enough to know whether or not some of the landmarks she uses are real places.)
In my Sentinels book, I used a very specific time and place — New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina — and I made the conscious decision to use primarily real settings. No, there’s not a bar on Bourbon Street called the Green Gator, but that corner of Bourbon and St. Louis does exist. The characters eat at real restaurants. The cityscape/landscape doesn’t change. Jean Lafitte’s home in the modern world, the Eudora Welty Suite at the Hotel Monteleone, really exists. Many author who use real-world settings know their area pretty well or research it thoroughly. I lived in New Orleans for almost fifteen years, was there for Katrina and for a few years after Katrina, so it was a natural choice for me to use as a setting. Likewise, in my current serial novel Storm Force (written as Susannah Sandlin), I use settings I knew: Houston, Southeast Texas, and western Louisiana (although a couple of errors still slipped in that have to be fixed before it goes to print).
Some real-world settings I don’t think are used very well. I enjoy the settings of the Sookie Stackhouse (aka Southern Vampires) series, but very little about that setting says “Louisiana” to me. It could be set in Mississippi, or Alabama, or Arkansas. Likewise, the Anita Blake series has never used the St. Louis setting to much effect. It could be set anywhere.
These are fun to write and if done well, easy to imagine they’re real places. Doesn’t Caldwell, N.Y., feel real to you fans of the Black Dagger Brotherhood? I can almost map out downtown Caldwell, and where the bars are located because it’s described so consistently and so well. Fantasy, of course, is by definition fictional, as is much science fiction–especially space-based sci-fi.
In my Penton Legacy series (w/a Susannah Sandlin), I used a real crossroads area in Chambers County, Alabama, called Penton in which to place my little town, but the town itself is fictional. It’s actually based on the layout of the small town in which I was born and raised. But I mapped the town out, where buildings were located, and what they looked like, so I could be consistent and make the town feel real.
I guess the ultimate traditional fantasy setting is Middle Earth, but what others do you think are well done? Anyone read the Song of Ice and Fire series from George RR Martin?
This is probably most common (and even real-world settings have some of that, like the Green Gator in my series…and the corner where DJ’s house is located is actually a meat market–LOL). A series that I think uses a great, effective combination of real and fiction setting (regardless of how I feel about the books themselves) is the Twilight series. I have a friend who lives near Forks, Wash., and he says Stephanie Meyer nailed the setting. It was definitely atmospheric–no pun intended–and added to the feel of the story.
So…what’s your favorite type of setting? What books or series do you think does a really good job of using their settings. I’m moderating a panel on “From Forks to Bon Temps: Setting as Character” at the upcoming RT Booklovers convention, so…consider this research!