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Friday, April 12, 2013

Where in the world is your book happening?

Recently I read the manuscript of a client-author of mine (remember, I'm also an editor!), and at the end I had one big question for her right away -- where was this set? Because I read the whole thing and I had no idea! Turns out she knew she had done that, as she wasn't sure if she should name the city where we live, or not. I advised her strongly to do so. After all, when your book is done and published and you're trying to market it, you lose a whole marketing strategy of appealing to the local audience, if no one knows they are "local." (Your three easiest cities to market yourself/have an author event are your hometown, your college town, and where you live now. Hopefully those three towns aren't all the same! If your book is set in a fourth city, you can add that one too.) After all, I remember a couple of years ago when Love in Mid Air by Kim Wright was published, everyone here (Charlotte, North Carolina) was obsessed with it as the book took place here! Everyone was looking to see if their favorite restaurants or boutiques were mentioned, and a lot of them were.

Also, setting your book in a recognizable city tells readers a lot about your setting, without you the author having to do a lot of work. An author is going to assume a different vibe for a book set in Minneapolis or Atlanta or D.C. Granted, sometimes those assumptions aren't very accurate, as my hometown of Nashville can attest, but a good writer can soon show the true colors of a city and you still have a lot of personality that's given, such as in Bowling Avenue by Ann Shayne. If you, the author, chooses to either have your city be a no-city, or to make one up, you're going to have to do a lot of scene setting you wouldn't otherwise need to do. (This does not apply to genre novels -- romances, sci fi, fantasy, or mysteries. They make up their own settings a lot and it's expected.) When you make up your own place, you're going to have a tough time keeping things accurate and you really do lose a lot when there's no local flavor. Can you imagine Sex in the City without the City? Or Bridget Jones not in London? Or Terms of Endearment not in Texas? Would any of those books be the same?

That said, very occasionally novels do go for fictional settings, so I thought it was only fair for me to point a few out that do it successfully: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, set in Wisconsin at a fictional college. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe. Everyone assumes it's the Czech Republic because of the author's background, but it's not stated in the book. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout takes place in the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn takes place on the island of Nollop, South Carolina, hometown of equally fictional Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Kent Haruf's Plainsong takes place in Holt, Colorado, a made-up small town East of Denver. And the one that first jumped into my mind when thinking of fictional places: Mitford, North Carolina, in all of Jan Karon's lovely books.

Do you notice a trend here? They're all pretty much small towns. If you're going to make up a setting, a small town is much more manageable. Do you like to picture where books take place? Do you like to be able to look up places in the books you read and see what they really look like? Do you like reading a novel set in your hometown? I strongly recommend sticking to the facts for the most part, especially with a city, but if you're determined to make up your setting, stay small.

1 comment:

Book Dilettante said...

I always want to know the setting of a book. Makes it much more real and relevant.