Novelist Alice Hoffman said once, “Place matters to me. Invented place matters more.”
Writers of fiction know the importance of setting. If a setting is real, like Paris or London or Chicago, most readers already have a strong mental picture. If the setting is fictional, the writer must create that picture through sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch—and more importantly, how those sensory details are processed by the characters.
Setting can be a character in its own right. It can also be a metaphor. Setting creates a mood, grounds a story in reality, informs the characters, and often determines plot. Think of the wilds of Cornwall in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, or the bleak, treacherous moors in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles or the Dustbowl of the 1930s in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. These stories couldn’t have happened anywhere else, and the job of the author is to transport their readers to another time and place.
Since I’m an American writing a mystery series set in the UK, I can’t sit in front of my computer and imagine what being in England is like. Sometimes I have to get out of the house and go there. Before I can develop setting, I have to experience it for myself.
I’m writing this from England. After a year and a half of lockdown, I’m back, scouting out locations for the fifth book in my Kate Hamilton series. In this as-yet-unnamed book, Kate and Detective Inspector Tom Mallory travel to Devon to check out an early nineteenth-century frock purported to have belonged to an infamous murderer—and they stay at Fouroaks, the estate owned by Tom’s Uncle Nigel. One of my tasks on the trip is to choose a location for Fouroaks.
Here’s a photos of one possibility–Lainston House Hotel, a lovely building with a pre-Norman core and a William and Mary exterior. All I have to do is add four old oak trees and it’s Fouroaks.
What do you think? I’m open to suggestions.
How important is setting to you as a reader? As a writer? Comment below on Facebook.