BOB MAYER: There are two ways one can look at setting: it’s generic, or its critical to the plot. What I mean is I’ve listened to authors discuss this. One bestselling author said: “Hey, if I put a story in a New England village, everyone knows what it looks like, so I don’t have to go into much detail. I let their minds fill in the setting.” Another disagreed. She felt setting was critical and needed to be described down to the last detail, to the point where one could thatch a roof after reading her description of it. Extremes.
For me, it depends on the story. Even the genre to an extent. Since I’ve published in a wide array of genres, I do see a different in them. For a thriller, setting supports the plot, but often isn’t central to it. Unless you’re writing something like The Eiger Sanction, in which case that mountain is pretty important.
One reason I set the Will Kane books in New York City in the late 70s is because setting is not just place; it’s time. NYC then was very different than it is now and I remember it. The summer of the Son of Sam. The Blackout. The city was going under. Crime was rampant. I also like the fact its pre-laptops, pre-cell phone, pre-google, pre-CCTV. I watch and read so much now where those are used as plot devices. I like the fact that when my protagonist goes out onto the street no one can get a hold of him. Do you remember that un-tethered feeling before cell phones? I’m not sure they’ve made out lives better. If he wants to check on something, he needs to do real research. Which made me invent a character, his landlord, who was just laid off from the NY Post when Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1977. Pope, his landlord, know how to do legwork on research. Thus setting influences the characters.
We just started watching the new Perry Mason. It’s surprisingly slow moving, but engrossing. And they put a lot of money into setting.
You can take the same idea and put it in different setting and you have a completely different story.
I prefer to actually “walk the terrain” as far as setting. Harkens back to my military days. You can look at a map and even satellite imagery, but it doesn’t give you a feel for the setting. I never understood what happened to Custer, even after all the books I’d read and films I’d watched. But the moment I stepped out of the car at Little Big Horn, I knew immediately what happened.
Like everything else, it depends on who you are as a writer. Do you need that first hand sensation for setting? Does the reader?
JENNY: For me, Setting is three things: Time, Place, and Community.
Think of it as the backdrop, the stuff that’s going on around the protagonists while they pursue their goals in the story. And that background has a profound effect on story. Or as Elizabeth Bowen said, “Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colours the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.”
At work is both a conscious and non-conscious ideology, the ideas that this time, this place, these people have instilled in us as the right and proper way to live and conduct ourselves. Some of those are conscious—if I do this my friends won’t like me—but a lot of it is stuff is non-conscious, things we’ve just absorbed as we’ve grown, ideas that are accepted as fact by our setting and therefore are things that “everybody knows.” The two act together to determine thought, action, and feeling.
Take Time. The Marriage of Convenience story works great in the eighteenth century, but authors really have to stretch to make it work in the twenty-first because nobody ever really has to get married now, unless, of course, your setting demands it. There are all kinds of workarounds for that, most not that convincing, so Time has now sparked a new flavor of the MoC, the fake relationship, much easier to motivate than marriage, yet still retaining all the same forced intimacy and working together for a goal (convince people the fake is real).
The time in which a story takes place is hugely important, so while you don’t have to foreground current affairs, you do have to be aware of their impact. If you’re writing an American story that takes place on the Fourth of July, there’s gonna be fireworks. If your protagonist is Christian and your story takes place at the end of the December, there’s gonna be Christmas. If you’re writing a North American story in January, your protagonist s probably going to need a coat. Nothing happens nowhere, but nothing happens nowhen, either.
The book I am trying to finish now begins with a note: “This book takes place in 2011. Because.” Why? Because Trump. This admin has upset all social (and setting) norms, and I’m not interested in my characters obsessing over whether he’s a threat to the country or making it great again. I just want to tell my story, and Trump is such an overwhelming part of today’s setting, he has essentially made the country about him, which means I need to backdate just to get a setting that won’t overpower the story. And then, of course, the coronavirus hit. Someday I may write a virus story, but not today.
Speaking of nowhere, there’s also Place, which is what people usually think of when they think of Setting: where is all this happening? A story set in America is going to be different from a story set in France or Japan. A story set in New York City is going to be different than a story set in Wapakoneta, Ohio (believe me, I know). A conversation in the living room is different from that same conversation in the bedroom, even if the topics are the same. This is one of the places where you strengthen your story by really understanding the strengths and weaknesses of place. One of the reasons I love small town settings is that everybody watches everybody else. A stalker in a big city is anonymous and threatening. A stalker peering in a window in a small town will be noticed by the nosy next door neighbor who will take his picture and put it on Facebook or, more likely, yell his name across the yard. Big city dwellers are seldom worried about the opinions of their neighbors; small town inhabitants live and die on reputation.
In the same way, the structure your protagonist inhabits changes story. Do they live alone in a big house or with three other people in a small apartment? Do they like where they live, have control over the living situation? Have they done things to the space to make it theirs or have they deliberately refused to invest it with their personalities?And then there’s the way the protagonist navigates the spaces. Do they move confidently through the dwelling, through the town or city? Do they know their neighborhood well or is this somewhere new to them? Do they command their environment or is it hostile and unknown to them?
And then there are the basics: do you as the author understand this place? One of the things Bob made me do when we were writing together was walk the terrain, which is BobSpeak for go out there and look at the damn place you’re writing about, which is how I ended up traipsing across the private property of some mansion in South Carolina (I think it was SC, Bob drove) for Agnes and the Hitman and stumbling through an amusement park in Pennsylvania late at night on Halloween for Wild Ride. I may have bitched a little, but both trips were extremely valuable and had a big impact on the books because they meant we got the setting right.
Finally, People, or Community. The opinions of the people in the protagonist’s community matter, whether that protagonist wants to fit in or wants to defy them. An argument between two people in front of their friends is different from an argument between two people in front of their bosses or an argument between two people who are alone. Regardless of whether the observers have a stake in the argument or not, the fact that the arguers are being watched has a tremendous impact. Observation changes action; it’s called the observer effect in physics, and one of the most interesting things about it from a storytelling aspect is that the observer doesn’t have to be conscious of observing; that is, the knowledge that somebody is there will change action and conflict whether the observer is paying attention or not. Which means, if there’s not enough tension in a conversation, put somebody else at the next table or just outside the door. Even if the scene isn’t full of conspiracy and secrets, the participants will be constrained.
I can talk about setting for days (actually, I think I just did) but the big takeaway here is your world-building is important because it has a major impact on the story. Nothing happens out of time, out of place, and out of society. The effects may be subtle, but they’re crucial nonetheless.
BOB MAYER: One thing that occurs to me is that thrillers are time sensitive. If one is writing a current thriller, you can easily get overwhelmed by real world events.
JENNY: Yep. They have time locks.
I was caught when you said you’d set the Kane books in the meatpacking district. I love that part of NYC, but I loved it in the 90s. Probably different from Kane’s time; it was trendy then. If I knew more about NYC I’d set a story in the Village on Jane Street. Remember the apartment we worked in there? I loved that place.
BOB MAYER: That’s actually his apartment in 1977. But the area is very seedy. I’m getting ready in the next book to move him to a loft in Tribeca in the next book since people keep trying to kill him in that apartment.
JENNY: You used that apartment? That’s so great.
Upstairs or downstairs?
Downstairs was the best.
BOB MAYER: He’s in the basement. But he sleeps on the floor or in the backyard.
JENNY: So he’s basically you.
Where was I? Right, I’m in the middle on detail. Use significant detail that is crucial to the story, not the stuff that everybody already knows. I don’t think you have to describe Hawaii, but you better put in the physical stuff that’s going to be important to the plot. Like how brutal lava rock is.
BOB MAYER: Another interesting thing about setting is that there are Youtube videos of EVERYTHING. Seriously. I found videos of people navigating tunnels under NYC that I used as research.
JENNY: So you can watch other people walk the terrain. Good tip.
BOB MAYER: You don’t get the immediate feel but you can see things you can’t do personally.
BOB MAYER: I’m glad you added community. That was a big goal in my new series. I built him a community around the diner he goes to every morning.
JENNY: I’m a fool for floorplans, too. If I’ve got a house-bound plot, the first thing I do is the floor-plan.
BOB MAYER: Yes. Have to keep the reader oriented.
JENNY: Well, floorplans are maps.
We did a map for Wild Ride, remember?
BOB MAYER: I love maps. It’s amazing what you get on Google Maps now– better than the satellite imagery the CIA provided us for real world missions in the 80s.
We had to do a map to keep ourselves oriented.
JENNY: Well, yeah, that was forty years ago.
BOB MAYER: Shh.
JENNY: We’ll just cut that part. Sorry.
That is so great that you used that garden apartment. It’s a perfect setting.
BOB MAYER: Some genres are setting intense: fantasy for example.
JENNY: World building. But then people get overzealous about it. The Murderbot books are good with that. They’re on all different planets, but Wells just has Murderbot notice significant details. I’m a fool for significant details.
BOB MAYER: World building from the ground up is hard. I always tell people to see how Frank Herbert did it in Dune. Start small, build out.
Significant details are “tells” in film. Everything in the frame is there for a reason, so pay attention. Often there is foreshadowing in the background most people don’t consciously notice.
JENNY: Aaronovitch does a great job with London in the Rivers books. He builds a whole world with history and landmark. And the central structure, the Folly, is described over the course of the series. Beautiful job.
I think setting is hugely important in series. One of the reasons people go back to the series is to see the place and the people that surround the protagonist.
BOB MAYER: And details that aren’t significant in your first draft, but you put them there? They can become significant when you get stuck. How else can you use them? Why did your subconscious mind put them there?
JENNY: Oh, I agree. The stuff I stick in there and later think, “Wait I can use that.”
Except for the Venus de Milo. We screwed up on that one in Agnes.
BOB MAYER: Its one thing I like about community. I can introduce a character in a book who has only a minor role in one book, but then pump them up in another.
JENNY: We spent so much time on that statue that people thought it was a macguffin and not just part of the house.
BOB MAYER: I forgot about that.
JENNY: I don’t even remember why we put the Venus in there. I know how it functioned in the plot, it was the way into the secret bunker, but why the hell was it the Venus de Milo?
BOB MAYER: Because.
JENNY: We made some odd decisions.
And before that there was the jeep fairy.
BOB MAYER: Oh yeah– the jeep fairy. That I remember.
JENNY: Which goes to show you that even with two people in a book, Mistakes Will Be Made.
BOB MAYER: Certainly. And someone will let you know.
But you can kill those people.
JENNY: At a booksigning, no less. I still remember you looking at me for an answer to that one. I got nothin’.
BOB MAYER: I thought it was Kansas City.
JENNY: We were in Kansas City?
It was Boston, I’m 58% sure.
BOB MAYER: Last stop of the book tour. We’d almost escaped and someone brought it up.
JENNY: So time, place, and people. Use significant detail. Don’t over describe. Read through your first draft to find stuff the Girls have dropped in there that you can use. Walk the terrain. Check to make sure you know how the jeep got there.
This is another one of those topics we agree on. Which makes for a lousy chat.
BOB MAYER: Speaking of setting, we were talking here about Agnes and the Hitman and what would they be up to afterward at the house and I said: Agnes would be running cooking workshops and on alternate weekends Shane would be running hitman workshops. And then what if they got confused with scheduling?
BOB MAYER: We have had some interesting people show up at our writing workshops over the years. Lots of nice people. But some interesting ones too.
JENNY: I don’t think Agnes would do workshops. She’d be writing her column and her cookbooks. And doing Shane as often as possible. She was a simple woman. The real mystery is Lisa Livia. She’s somewhere kicking ass and taking names.
BOB MAYER: Anyway. Setting. Yes. You need it.
JENNY: That’s deep, Bob.
You need it, so use it.
BOB MAYER: She went after her money in the Caymans
JENNY: Yeah, but she got that back years ago. She had Carpenter with her. She’d swindle and he’d bash heads.
BOB MAYER: True.
JENNY: I like the idea that the stories live on in other people’s imaginations. I think the reason so many sequels fail is that the readers have already imagined the sequel and the next book doesn’t measure up to their personal fantasies. A lot of people thought Davy in Faking It was a weaker version of Davy in Welcome to Temptation, and I think that’s because they’d fantasized him as a badder ass than he was. He was always a laidback conman.
BOB MAYER: True. The same with setting though. If you over detail it you can clash with the reader’s imagination.
JENNY: Well, and over-detailing is boring. If its not a telling detail, don’t tell it.
It’s what you said up-thread about films: any specific detail becomes Chekhov’s setting: it’s gonna go off later in the book. That was our problem with Venus: she didn’t go off because there was nothing important about her. But we detailed her, so . . .
BOB MAYER: That’s true. If you CAN’T use the odd detail, cut it in final editing.
JENNY: I think that’s part of the writer/reader contract: The reader has to accept the writer’s initial setting (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) and the writer has to make that setting detailed enough to be real without so much detail that it shuts out the reader’s ability to build the picture in mind as they read.
The reader can’t say, “I don’t believe there’s a galaxy far, far away,” and the writer better make the galaxy alien and interesting with only significant detail. The only mundane detail I remember is the trash compactor and a lot of steel walls.
You the writer establish the world and let the reader build it in their minds.
BOB MAYER: Readers have an array of tastes.
JENNY: That’s why you leave white space for the reader to play along. Which brings us back to significant detail only.
BOB MAYER: Think of the difference between a play and a novel in terms of setting. How limited a play is.
When I watched the movie Fences, I could tell it had been written as a play.
JENNY: Novels can be limited, too. And Then There Were None. Rebecca. Any claustrophobic plot.
But yeah, limited setting does feel theatrical.
Oooh, Haunting of Hill House.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Shirley Jackson, Queen of Claustrophobia.
BOB MAYER: Which is why, we need to study all types of story telling. Learn from them.
JENNY: Absolutely. I’m fascinated by graphic novels right now.
They’re not illustrated novels, the layout tells as much of the story as the words. It’s the whole structure as meaning thing, except the structure is visual.
Also, I may be a writing geek.
BOB MAYER: Lots of series now coming out of graphic novels. I just started Umbrella Academy
JENNY: That’s a perverse little series.
BOB MAYER: Odd series. But fun. Lots of suspension of disbelief required.
JENNY: I like Amanda Conner’s stuff. Especially her Harley Quinn issues.
Although setting in graphic novels really foregrounds itself.
BOB MAYER: Well, we agree too much.
JENNY: I know. We need to pick things we don’t agree on. That are about writing.
BOB MAYER: Perhaps people reading this could throw something at us.
JENNY: They’re probably throwing things at us right now.
Next week is theme and unity.
Huh. That’s difficult. I’m not sure we can get a chat out of it. Do you even work with theme and unity? That’s not a slam, it just doesn’t seem part of your approach. Metaphor, symbol, that stuff?
BOB MAYER: Theme is also the message coming from a story. That could be interesting.
JENNY: Not sure about message. Definitely not moral. Central idea?
BOB MAYER: I liken theme to author motivation: why am I writing this particular book?
JENNY: Oh that’s interesting. Okay, next week is theme and unity. Excellent.
BOB MAYER: Okey-dokey. Got two dogs staring at me wanting to go to their private ball field. Run the bases. Stay safe. Don’t take any wooden nickels.
JENNY: Good advice. Will take to heart. Kiss the dogs for me. I’ll tell mine you said hi.