I USUALLY SET MY NOVELS in exotic locations. By “exotic,” I mean that they are apt to be places that a significant number of my readers have never visited.
One advantage of an exotic setting is that many of them are aspirational. By this, I mean that they are the sorts of places that people dream about visiting—the sorts of places they will read about and save for years in order to visit for a week. So by setting a novel in one of those places, I give those readers a free (or nearly free) trip to a place that they have been dreaming about… I figure the exotic setting makes the book more desirable.
Operating on this premise, I have set novels, or significant portions of novels, in the Bahamas, on the Yucatan Peninsula, in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands. I’ve put my characters in London and Washington, DC. I’ve described them driving A-1A along the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida, and Highway 1, down the California coast.
But there is a caveat here; if you choose to set your novel someplace exotic, it still needs to ring true with those readers who have either been there or otherwise have great familiarity with the setting. So you will be miles ahead of the game if you physically go to the place where your book is set, and experience it yourself.
I proved the value of this when I was working on my fourth novel, a book called Dark Fathom, much of which was going to be set on Bermuda.
When I began the novel, I hadn’t been to Bermuda yet, but I’d read a few articles—enough to get the lay of the land. And when my character arrived on Bermuda, I had him travel from his airport to the hotel the same way that I would normally get around in a new place: I had him rent a car.
I even described the novelty of driving a car from the right-hand side, something I’d experienced personally only a few months before in the Cayman Islands. I thought it a clever detail.
Then I got to Bermuda and discovered that there are no rental cars there. None. Not at the airport and not in the entire country.
Bermuda, it turns out, has extremely restrictive laws concerning automobiles.
To keep the small nation’s roads from becoming a gridlocked nightmare, even residents are limited to one car per household, regardless of how many people there are in the family.
Tourists get around using motor scooters, taxis, or a remarkably easy-to-understand bus system (if the bus stop has a pink pole, the bus is headed toward Hamilton—the capitol—and if the bus stop has a blue pole, the bus is headed away from Hamilton and toward the sea).
This means that, if I’d put my character in a rental car, I would have had him getting around Bermuda in a mode of transportation that did not exist.
Now, on the surface of it, this may not seem like that big a deal. After all, a novel is a work of fiction, not a guidebook, and novelists have, by definition, license to make things up.
But when the novel is set in a location that actually exists, that license has limitations.
In nonfiction and specifically in the essay, there exists something called “the contract with the reader.” Essentially, this says that the reader has the right to believe that everything the essayist says is true.
Fiction, in general, contains no such contract. So, if you are J.R.R. Tolkien and you choose to set your novel in a place called “Middle Earth,” and populate it with hobbits, you are absolutely free to do so. It doesn’t matter that the setting does not exist.
But if you decide to set your novel in a place called “Columbus, Ohio,” and if your novel takes place in the same world that the reader lives in, and not in some parallel universe… then the Columbus you describe had better sound passingly familiar to anyone who’s ever been there.
I say this because of another principle closely related to “the contract with the reader”—a principle called “reasonable suspension of disbelief.”
Under reasonable suspension of disbelief, the reader agrees to enter into the world of the novel and live there a while, as long as the writer does nothing to jar the reader out of that place. And for a reader who has been to Bermuda, or knows something about it, a character renting a car is an action that would jar them. It creates a “this writer doesn’t know what he/she is talking about” sort of speed bump, and it might be enough of a bump to convince the reader to set the novel down and never come back. Then, in this Internet-connected world, that reader may also register an opinion with a few hundred friends.
So… are you planning on setting your next novel in Chicago? Then go to Chicago. Spend some time there. Figure out what people like to eat, how they talk, what they are proud of, and what they merely put up with.
Sure, you can learn a lot of this surfing the web. But while the Internet might be able to show you what a Chicago mounted policeman’s horse looks like, being there is going to tell you what the horse and its tack smell like, what the horse sounds like when it nickers upon seeing someone it knows, and what you feel like when you have to crane your head back to talk to the policeman.
For setting authenticity, there’s no substitute for time on the ground.
So if you’re setting your book in Chicago, go to Chicago and find out what it’s like. Or, better still, set your book in Paris and Rome, and go spend a month or two finding out what they’re like. There are worse ways of doing research.
Of course I realize that, for most of us, taking off to spend a season or two in Europe is just not going to be in the cards. Not yet.
If that’s the case with you, then think about setting your next novel in your location—the place where you live right now. You know that place; when you write about it, your work will have the ring of authenticity. And there’s nothing like that ring of authenticity to keep the readers with you, in the story.