Shop Talk: Settings in Speculative Fiction

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.

Real-World 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.

Fictional Setting
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?

Combined Setting
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!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

36 thoughts on “Shop Talk: Settings in Speculative Fiction

  1. I just started reading Game of Thrones, and yes the setting(s) there are probably just as important as LOTR or even more so as the difference between the cold of the Wall or Winterfell and the sunny climates of King’s Landing, there are so many different landscapes in GoT for the author to play with

  2. I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series and the setting is amazing! For me, though, the fictional setting becomes that much more believable when you have an author who is accomplished at the whole world building spectrum. Westeros and its various kingdoms and the lands beyond the sea all come to life because Martin spends so much time building their history and folklore in addition to describing the place.

    I don’t necessarily have a preference between fictional/real world/combo settings as long as the author makes it believable and real for me. If it’s a real world setting and it’s a place I’m familiar with, the author needs to get it right. If it’s fictional, the author needs to be able to bring it to life for me.

    • You’re so right about the setting and the world building needing to work in lockstep. I actually started this post as a world building post but decided to talk about them separately (yes, that means a chat about world building is coming soon).

  3. Well, let’s see.
    I’ve only read the first Hollows book, but as a Cincinnati girl, I can tell you that most of the locations are identifiable, if not exactly specific, if that makes any sense. I know I could find that church, or one just like it…
    I’m writing contemporary romantic suspense with a small town setting…one series is a small college down, the other is centered around a marina in semi-rural Kentucky. And I think of my settings as characters, more or less…hopefully that will come across!

    • That’s good to know about the Hollows! And I’m definitely for using the settings as characters–can’t wait to read your books! Romantic suspense is hot right now 🙂

  4. I seem to like the books with “Real-World” settings best. Have learned much about New Orleans because of your Sentinels books. Have probably learned more because of this blog where we see lots of pictures of landmarks and settings from the books. Also have learned much about the cuisine [Muffaletta], music [Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino], history [Jean Lafitte]. Really, really need to visit New Orleans for RT in 2014.

    • You really DO need to go to NOLA for RT next year! I was excited to see that it’s going to be later next year–over in May. Because of my day-job schedule, getting off word in late April early May has caused all kinds of headaches.

  5. If an author writes a setting well, I don’t mind if it’s a real place it a made up place. I do confess I would probably have difficulties with a story set in my hometown. I would probably be distracted by the familiarity of the setting

    • Yes, it’s hard. I have trouble reading stuff set in New Orleans for that reason. I tend to pick them apart and have trouble focusing on the story.

  6. I agree with your last commenter, in that I don’t have a preference for one kind of setting or the other, as long as the author is consistent and makes the setting feel real. I think Kat Richardson does a good job of this in the Greywalker books (and as a Seattle resident I’d know if she got the details wrong, right?), and I like the version of NYC that Seanan McGuire creates for her Incryptid books.

  7. I don’t really have a preference for a certain type of setting either. Although I think it’s probably easier to write in either a made up world or an alternate version of reality. If a book is based in the “real world” errors really stand out if the reader is familiar with the area.

    • It’s definitely easier to write in a made-up world–then you only have to worry about being consistent and not getting a direction or name wrong that someone who knows the area well is going to pick up on.

  8. IT’s an interesting topic which I have to say I haven’t thought much about. I usually just go with the flow whether it is a real life setting or a made up one. I read a lot of dystopia, where the settings are so far in the future that the places aren’t often recognizable.

    One of my favorite series is Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld. And she has used some real places like Toronto.

    • It’s probably a good sign that you haven’t given it much thought–I suspect that it’s when the setting strikes us as “off” somehow that it makes us think about it more. Guess it’s all in the power of whether or not the author can sell us on the setting without drawing attention to it.

  9. This is one area where Ilona and Gordon Andrews really shine. Their fictional Atlanta in the Kate Daniels series is so well thought-out and consistent with the basic premise of the series. In the series, you really can’t identify the setting separate from the world-building, as they are so intimately connected. They also created an great setting for their Edge PNR series, but again, in that series, the setting can’t really be separated from the world-building.

    Another series I’ve read that does the setting really well is Lilith St. Crow’s Jill Kismet series. It’s set in a fictional, hard-scrabble southwestern town. Having lived in New Mexico, I can tell you that the feel of the town is correct, right down to my being able to imagine the hard, flat light of the desert in the mid-day sun when I read her descriptions.

    • I have gotta read the Kate Daniels series. I mean, I live 90 miles from Atlanta, for heaven’s sake. I really need a sugar daddy to support me so I can read more….or maybe not.

  10. fictional or real as long as it’s well described, though and consistent i love it.
    now with a real setting i would love to have a touristic tour to see and it’s something i imagine well when you show us picture of lands or building and area you included in your book, it’s instructive and i really like those

    but some fictional are also really well done like Jen M said the atlanta described by ilona andrews nearly seem real to me and i could imagien wandering in it

    and the setting for mercy thompson it fit so well!

    so i guess i do love when the setting is approprioate to teh story ( if you have a large pack you prefer either somewhere with a lot of people to blend in or something really rural to stay together and act with less eyes on you

    • Yes, I have no idea how accurate the settings of the Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega series are, but they just add so much to the stories that it makes me want to go there.

  11. As long as the descriptions are done well then I don’t mind if they’re real or fictional. Although, I feel like with fictional settings authors aren’t confined to the physical characteristics of real places, they can really do anything they want the setting.

    • That’s absolutely true. Having written a series in each, the fictional settle is definitely easier. Whatever you need, you just make it up! Although in using New Orleans as a setting, I haven’t found it too restrictive once I got into River Road–although I did have to think about terrain and how might get from Point A to Point B when there are no roads. Using specific time and location in Royal Street was VERY restrictive because there were parts of town that one simply couldn’t get to, and no businesses were open, and the city was in such a mess. I was determined to make it real, though, so I had to work around the limitations.

  12. I read the House of Night books by P C Cast mainly because they are set in Tulsa, where I live. In fact, I drive by the “House of Night” school (Casia Hall) every day on my way home. She uses real locations like Charlie’s Chicken,Street Cats and the Starbucks at Utica Square. I enjoy that part of her books. I’m just a big sad that her characters don’t seem to grow much.
    With the Morganville Vampires books, they aren’t set in a real town, but I have been in many small Texas towns just like Morganville. In fact, Sherman Texas, where I attended Austin College, is much like Morganville.
    I don’t care for the Twilight books, but I have a friend who has spent time in Forks and she says the descriptions are “spot on”.
    Ariel, by Stephen Boyett, has a great setting(s). I can get a map and follow the travels of his characters without any problem.

  13. I don’t really have a preference for setting. I do enjoy reading about places that I have always wanted to visit. New Orleans is on the top of my list because of the music.
    I would love to see pictures of some of the things in JD Robbs “In Death” series because I there’s not enough description for me to visualize.For example.. a “tube” of pepsi. I just need more details. 🙂

  14. As primarily a fantasy reader, I guess I prefer the ‘second-world’ settings most, as in not our world. Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings is a fantastic setting. However, I do also like a well done fictionalized historic age, like how most steampunk seems to look at Victorian England or Post-Civil War America.

    Those sorts of settings are great, but I’m also okay with a subtle, could-be-anywhere setting that lets you focus on the characters and story.

  15. I really enjoy reading books set in my home town of Chicago. Dresden Files, Chicago vampires series by Chloe Neill, Black Knights series by Julie Walker and another series by Christina Henry have all used Chicago as the setting, but have used landmarks, town customs in so many different ways. And yes, I loved the dinosaur from the Field museum racing around Chicago. Who knows-next time it might be the lions in front of the Art Institute that come to life!

  16. I don’t really have a favorite setting as such but I do agree that it is important and it helps in imagining the characters and places much better. Definitely J.R.Ward has awesome setting description. Also, now that you mention it, Twilight did have a really authentic setting.

  17. I love european settings, either big city or small town a place with history just sets such a romance tone for a story and really allows you to have some history to build off of

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  18. I think it’s difficult for me as I don’t know any city in the books. It’s always fun when the characters are in Paris because I know the city but it’s never really long. It’s true we’re very aware of the city in your books. The only one that cames to my mind isn’t paranormal, it’s the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. She is always very attentive of all the details of the city. So it’s easier to imagine everything.

  19. I don’t really have a favorite setting. As long as it is well written and draws me in then it doesn’t matter what location, real or fictional.

  20. I like all sorts of settings! And I’ve never been to any of those places I usually read it books so I can’t tell if are real or not. What I like best are the ones that really transports you to the place, like in Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor or Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff. I could have sworn I was another customer Poison Kitchen with Karou and Zuzana or feel the heady scent of the burning lotus with Yukiko.