During my years in the business of writing romance books I’ve found the two areas readers most often comment on when they write or email me are characters and setting. One of the first workshops I attended as a brand new writer, a well-known author said she never used a real town or city, but always made up one and noted it was X number of miles outside of (and she supplied the names of recognizable places.) That way she made up her book setting, but could use characteristics she knew were in and around the better known locale she has identified. It seemed a good plan to me as settings establish intimacy with your readers based on detail viewed through the eyes of your view point characters.
Being a bit of a compulsive/obsessive person who religiously fills out character sheets on my primary and secondary characters, I tried to devise such an outline for settings. It never caught on as did character sheets, but I still use a modified form where I establish country, state and capitol, borough, parish or township, near what recognizable city.
I consider the over-all population I want to work with, and decide (if applicable) the type of city government. Is there a mayor, city council, police, fire, etc? I choose a season and research what flora, fauna and/or wild animals might be found in the real general area during the season of my story. I want to know if there are mountains, lakes, rivers or canyons that would be known to readers who do live in the area. I decide if I want my town to have parks, hospitals or shopping malls, or is my story town so small the characters must drive to those locations? And if they drive to a larger city, do they pass landmarks or statues of importance? I like to know how far they’d have to go to find an airport. I can’t recall using trains or subways much which tells you I rarely set a book on the East Coast.
I like to know in advance of writing a book if the community I’ve built is friendly, bustling, slow, or sleepy. Do people neighbor, or do they mind their own business. I tend to populate my settings with all age groups, but I know writers who settle on one segment of a population such as gen X, gen Y or senior citizens.
It’s a given that any writer has to consider the environment when selecting a setting. Is there fog, smog, rain, sunshine with high or low humidity? So could you utilize a blizzard, a hurricane, an earthquake, forest fires, or drought?
I bear in mind the people, their customs and ethnic makeup, which means I must decide if I mention a variety of languages or not. Do I salt in regional slang, and what are popular hang outs that my characters frequent and who else goes there?
I love to see if there are festivals, fairs, or holiday celebrations in or around the area of my setting. They add color and sight impressions that connect with readers.
Writers who set a series in one particular area must make some sort of spreadsheet to keep a handle on the roads, architecture, business names and so forth. I think part of what holds reader interest in connected stories is the setting. And I know friends of mine who write science fiction or fantasy and do whole world building, have meticulous notes, because their settings are distinctively different from our own. That’s why many combine the known with the unknown. It’s so the reader feels a common bond with the made up society or world.
Sometimes you only need a line or two in your story that will speak to a reader and give the flavor of authenticity to your book. I love it when a reader feels moved to write to me out of a sense of nostalgia for a setting I’ve crafted.
Does setting matter to you in writing, and does where a story is set play a part in you considering a book a keeper?