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?