Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Setting the Scene

We'd like to welcome Author Jenny Hilborne to our happy little family of bloggers. Today is her first post as a regular. She joins us every other Wednesday, and we look forward to having her here!

By Jenny Hilborne

When I wrote my first novel, Madness and Murder, I wanted a recognizable, popular setting that readers would enjoy, not some remote place no one had ever heard of. Even though the strength of my stories is in the characters rather than in the settings, the locale of a novel is important. It gives the story background and sets the scene. At least, it does for me.

I recently read the Sam Christer novel, The Stonehenge Legacy. What a fabulous setting for a thriller. I was immediately drawn to the mystery before I opened the book. The place is iconic, even if you’ve not yet been there. I visited Stonehenge when the stones weren’t roped off and it was possible to get right up next to them. This place always gives me chills, so I couldn’t wait to delve into the book.

An extra treat was the few scenes Christer wrote that took in my hometown of Swindon, a town about 36 miles from Stonehenge and not known for its glamour. I liked the fact he chose a non-typical setting. I could reference all the streets and landmarks, which further enhanced my enjoyment of his book. In my own novels, I use mostly real neighborhoods in San Francisco, with a combination of real and fictional streets and establishments. It’s fun to create streets, maybe even whole towns, and name them.

Last week a reader approached me, with a copy of my new novel, Hide and Seek, in his hand, and posed this question: are the streets and venues real? Intrigued, I asked the reader how much it mattered, whether he had a preference, and if so, why. Turns out he didn’t, but the question led me to wonder about the preference of other readers and how important the setting of the story is to them. How much does it depend on genre? For example, can a historical thriller set in a fictional location be convincing? What type of environment improves the reader’s focus? To find out, I conducted a mini interview with ten randomly selected readers (plus a couple of authors) to get their take on it: a real setting they can visualize, or a fictional one they can imagine? I asked male/female, younger/older, readers in the US and the UK, and of varied genres. The answers surprised me.

Almost all those I asked prefer a real location. The most common reason I was given is based on travel. Readers enjoy stories that take place in locations they’ve either visited or plan to visit in the future. Those without the budget or opportunity to travel enjoy doing so through the author’s eyes.
Some readers say a fictional setting creates no frame of reference and leaves them remote, less than fully vested in the story. “If I fall in love with a fictional setting, I can’t visit it.” 

The advantage of a real setting, if captured perfectly by the author, is it allows the reader to visit the place, which is a huge part of the story for some readers. To what degree does this create a stronger following between the author and the reader? One reader cautioned: “If you choose fictional settings, the writing must be true to the region. I want to sense the rhythm and the culture.”

I thought Fantasy might be different, but even the readers of Urban Fantasy I asked chose real world places (with fantastical elements). The few I asked who didn’t choose real settings expressed no preference. The answers made me think about my writing style and the worlds I create. If readers want rhythm and culture, how do I give it to them in a fictional setting? If an imaginary town is at the centre of our stories, we must make them seem vivid and real. That’s quite a challenge, for which we only have our imaginations upon which to draw. They better be good.

Of course, I only asked ten readers. Others may feel differently about the setting. Which do you prefer – real or not?


  1. Being a realist, I prefer real settings in the books I write and read. But if the real setting is a place I've never heard of or been to, then intellectually it doesn't matter if it's real or fiction. I don't know unless I try to find it on a map. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. Great post, Jenny! Now you've got me thinking.... As a reader, I think I prefer somewhere real, as I've always been interested in history and geography, so that way, through a story, I can learn about some actual places. Lee Child is excellent for milking a setting for all it's worth and making me feel like I'm there, sweating or freezing or bustling, along with Jack Reacher!

    As an editor, I focus on making sure the details of the setting all make sense. A fantasy I once edited had both evergreen trees and palm trees in the woods/jungle!

    Welcome to CFC, Jenny, and I look forward to more of your posts!

  3. Interesting, Jenny. I write about Santa Monica in a real way with a map at hand. I lived there 20 years and fell in love with its complexity, all the while looking like a Los Angeles beach town.

    Good wishes to you,

  4. Jenny, welcome!

    My book, Red Tide, and the two I'm working on to follow, are all based in the fictional town of Aspen Falls. But I use the real towns of Aspen and Denver to give it an authentic feeling. Readers have enjoyed reading about familiar places, and no one can give me too much grief for getting something wrong in a fictional town. I did, however, have to draw a map to try and stay consistent.

    With fantasy, I'm not so sure. The Hunger Games take place in a brand new world...

  5. I much prefer a real setting, for the reasons you already listed. And ditto on made-up settings distancing me from the story, especially if they're consciously cute. I should also say that I'm not a fan of gritty, violent thrillers, but of funny stuff, and I still prefer my settings real. I do enjoy a fictional house, however, especially if it's over the top.

  6. Welcome to the family Jenny!

    In my novel I chose my hometown to bring a lot of realism to the story (which was inspired by actual criminal cases I've worked here). I've been really surprised and pleased by comments from readers I get regarding the setting. Some readers lived here long ago, others are residents. I even set up a FB page for my heroine where I upload pics and events from the locale so readers far away can "picture" exactly what I am describing in the novel. I even had my book signing at a local family restaurant featured in one scene. I plan to always use real locations because of the positive feedback I've gotten and the ability to share photos and real history of those locations with readers in other states and countries. Thanks for the post!

  7. Hi, Jen!
    I'm not certain I truly care as a reader whether a place is real or not, as long as it is "real" in the book. After all, I loved the setting of the Harry Potter books, and Hogwarts is not on any map.
    As a writer, I chose my hometown, Placentia, as the setting for my stories, because it has a very small-town feel, yet is wedged into the megalopolis that is southern California. I can have a lot of people drift in from surrounding cities, as both victims and murderers, unlike Murder, She Wrote's city of Cabot Cove, which got harder to believe that there were so many bodies piling up in one little town!
    I considered making a fictional town that coincidentally looks like Placentia, but finally went with reality. It was just easier.

  8. I mix the real in with the fictional. In my debut murder mystery, River Bottom Blues, my protagonists are blues musicians. They gig and hang out in bars around Texas. Those are all fictional, but based on blues bars I've visited. They both live in real places, Houston and rural Washington County, Texas. I created a fictional county for most of the atrocities to occur. Didn't want local upset with a lynching taking place and meth cookers dealing drugs.

  9. Great post, Jen! Both work for me. Like the folks you asked, I like real locations because I could actually visit them. I like fictional settings because it aids in the escape. If that makes any sense...
    Welcome to the blog! SO glad to see you here! :)

  10. For my last two novels, I've chosen fictional towns as the settings. The reason why: I wasn't comfortable writing about places with which I wasn't completely familiar. I didn't want readers to say, "There's no movie theater on that corner!"

    For my next novel, a sequel to the last, I've relocated my protagonist, Patrick, to my home town of San Diego. I feel much more confident moving him around now, as I know the place rather well.

    Having said that, I've enjoyed writing fictional towns. There's something very liberating about building a place from nothing and allowing my imagination to run free with very little constraints.

  11. Tom; a FB page for your heroine is a great idea for your distant readers. Because my novels are set in San Fran., which has many one-way streets, I often use a fictional street so I can have the villain make his escape any way I want. Even with a map, I know someone would catch me out going the wrong way if I used all real streets. I agree with Drew, too - it is liberating making up names and places. Thanks to all for such a warm welcome. Glad to be here.


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