Location, Location, Location!

During an interview, P.D. James made reference to Agatha Christie’s sparse location information, saying that it made her books accessible to many readers because they could imagine the story unfolding in their own hometown. There are other authors who write pages of description, down to the size, shape, and number of balustrades on the neighbor’s house.

What role do you think location plays in a novel? How much effort do you think should go into the research of the book’s setting, and how much of that research should make it into the book?

A Response
by MK Johnston

Location is the universe in which your characters live and your plot can progress. It’s critical to have a vivid setting, but research adds another vital dimension. Mark Twain, in describing the difference between fiction and non-fiction, is alleged to have said, “Fiction must be absolutely believable.” Research should bring a level of believability to a novel, since false or inaccurate details will destroy a reader’s interest. It becomes a question of balance; too little information will strand the reader and too much can distract from the story. As a general rule, the more unique the location – historical, foreign, exotic, or alternate universe – the more description is needed to make it real. But research should enrich not only the setting, but the characters and the plot.

How much description is needed to create a believable novel? As a reader, I like having a partnership with the writer. When I write, I prefer to render a sketch and leave some details to the reader’s imagination. However, I recognize that some prefer an oil painting, with everything fleshed out, and there are situations when more description is needed. Sometimes the protagonist will dictate how much is necessary; the setting or action will at other times.

In aiming for reality, the key is to avoid using your research in an obvious or intrusive way. No one enjoys reading a textbook. The effort should be translucent, used to create touchstones, not speed bumps. If I can construct a sense of place that grounds the reader in the world I’ve created, and allows the characters to live out their lives on the page, then I’m satisfied.


I Second That
by Jacqueline Vick

Miriam is exactly right. It depends on the book. When I read an Elizabeth Peters, the rich details about Egypt transport me not only to that land, but to the late 1800’s (for the start of the series). However, if a contemporary cozy included that much detail, I think the longer passages would bring the reading to a screeching halt.

I think the danger that I and other writer’s face is “keeping too much in our heads”. I’ll read a passage and “see” the room where the action takes place, but I have to make sure it’s actually on the page so that the reader can share that image with me. That’s why it’s great to have a critique group. Other writers will tell you if the image is clear.


Location, Location, Location
by GB Pool

In many novels and even short stories, location acts almost like a character. A great setting sets the stage for greater challenges whether it be physical places (Mt. Rushmore/North by Northwest), climatic as in climate (hurricanes/Key Largo or Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival), or the local natives (from Tarzan’s Africa to people on Hollywood Blvd).

For a short story, pick an easily understood setting because it needs less description; a dilapidate factory vs. a factory that makes those tiny tweezers that fit into a pocket sized manicure set, etc., etc., etc. If you get too technical, you will lose your audience and use up your word limit.

Get most of your facts right about places you only visit on the Internet; some readers are finicky about accurate descriptions of locales; if in doubt, fictionalize your locale. All the research you do will change your perception of that area even though you won’t use every bit of information that you discover. But your understanding of a region will color the entire story whether it is the incessant rain, blistering heat or rugged rocks.

Setting denotes the background of character living there. A person living in a penthouse has a different outlook on life than does a guy living in a garage apartment. A person from one economic background will view the same background through their own eyes. Where one person sees an efficient, profitable corporation, another will see it as a greedy, industrial monolith.

Description of settings can educate the reader, but don’t go too non-fiction. Some settings act as a general background. A short description such as: the local pub, conjures up a picture in the reader’s mind so you don’t have to go into elaborate explanation. Some word pictures set the era and mood like the longer descriptions used by Anne Perry in her description of Queen Victoria’s England. The type of book and the mood you want to achieve should dictate the length of your descriptions.

Too much description of a locale can stop the action. Remember, you’re not writing a travel guide. Setting also tells us how much time has passed (After two days a thick layer of dust covered every surface.)

If your story gets bogged down with too much description and it starts sounding like that travel log, describe those locations through dialogue. It will set the scene and add information from a particular character’s POV, so you not only see the surroundings, but you know how that character feels about it. Different characters can view settings differently depending on his or her personal perspective. (A woman in love can smell the flowers in the park, while her friend who just lost her job can see the wad of gum on the sidewalk.)

Use descriptions (sight, sound, smell) of locations to evoke an emotion, reaction, or establish mood. (A scummy swimming pool tells the reader the motel is seedy.) Setting can also take reader into another world (Tony Hillerman’s Indian reservation, Dick Francis’s racetrack.)

Remember “Chekov’s Gun” story. Don’t put something in a scene if it’s not going to be used. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Letter from Anton Chekov 1889. This tactic was used constantly in Murder, She Wrote. The camera always zoomed in on the “clue” about eight minutes into the show. During the last seven minutes Jessica Fletcher would recall that “clue” and solve the case. But you always knew that clue would make a reappearance before the final credits rolled.

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