Monday, June 20, 2011

Making Your Setting a Character

You know the blurb at the beginning of a published book about the names, characters, places and events either being the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons (living or dead), is coincidental? I love those words! Writers have certain restrictions on what we can or can't do. We fret about mentioning "real" products in terms of copyright infringement and inadvertently (and quite innocently) "borrowing" photos, lyrics, music, phrases or quotes. All the rules and restrictions can feel downright suffocating at times – to the point where it’s enough to drive a person crazy and makes one almost afraid to write about anyone or anything real. Ever felt that way? But the good news is this: writers have a bit of freedom – wiggle room, if you will – in terms of that all-important (but sometimes overlooked) element of a book: the setting.

There are definite advantages to using both an existing setting and also making one up in the writer’s fertile imagination. If a real place is chosen, you need to make sure you have the facts and get a “feel” for the place. I’ll admit to a twinge of envy every now and then when I hear that my writer friends are departing on some marvelous “research” trip for a contracted book. Maybe someday… For now, I’m content with memories of visiting certain places, and again, the internet is such a versatile, indispensable tool for the modern writer, although nothing compares to that “up close and personal” visit. But - real or fictional - you need to know the location well enough to make it a character in itself, so much so that it’s almost a living, breathing element alongside your characters. The choice of setting can greatly enhance your plot and entice readers to want to experience (or revisit) the charms of a particular place for themselves – real or not. Sometimes a bit of artistic license comes into play, but be accurate to the best of your ability. Admittedly, it can be a gray area at times. However, if the location stems completely from your imagination, no one can point a finger and claim you’re not being accurate. And it can be a lot of fun. I've conjured up a town in Louisiana for my second series, and I'm having so much fun with the places and quirky characters in my little town!

The one sticky wicket I had in my debut novel, Awakening, was when Sam takes Lexa to a special restaurant in San Antonio for an elegant lunch. I read about it in several books, but didn’t have the opportunity to visit firsthand. When Lexa sees this place, she claps her hands in childlike delight and says, “It’s a castle!” An early reader asked if it was real. It is, and what Sam tells her about it is true (being moved from England to Texas); however, when I looked it up online, it doesn’t look like a castle at all. Hmm... So, there’s no way Lexa would have made that comment or been so enthralled with it. Because I love Sam’s line shortly thereafter (it’s one of my personal favorites in my debut novel, along with “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a little armadillo told me,”), I changed the name of the place to something that sounded very similar, but not the actual name of the castle, thus making it a fictional place. I’ve worried about it somewhat, waiting for someone to call me on it, but I’ll claim that all-important artistic license and fall back on that blurb at the beginning of the book as my defense, if needed.

I've heard that if you use a real place, it can be a boon to your sales (especially if it's a quaint town with friendly locals) if the author is true to the spirit and essence of the town. The citizens can become your greatest allies in helping you promote your book. Most often, they're more than willing to answer questions, show you around and tell you all about their town. Here's a wonderful example: it’s my distinct privilege to introduce you to my friend and Christian author Melinda Evaul. She lives in Tennessee, but has found writing success and great personal satisfaction writing about the small community of Love Valley, North Carolina in her charming book, Grow Old With Me (available on Her story and characters beautifully satisfy that need for a novel depicting how love can be discovered at any age. A lot of readers are clamoring for stories of people of "a certain age."

Love Valley exists in more than just Melinda’s lively imagination. Read what she shares about how using a true-to-life setting (complete with the characters, places and events) has positively enhanced her life, as well as her marketing efforts and subsequent sales:

(1) What are the advantages of using a real place? Research was a breeze since I was able to visit the location, take many pictures, and interview people. It also gave me a contact person willing and able to help if I had specific questions about the location during the writing process.

(2) How has it impacted your sales? I visited the town for a book signing. Many of the people in the vicinity also want to read the book since it’s a familiar location. Readers want to see Love Valley since it is an actual town. I’m helping their economy and tourism via my setting.

(3) How has visiting the locations of your novel influced your life - personally and/or as a writer? Friendships developed after visiting the town. It’s become a fond place in my heart. Several of my contacts will always be friends. Much of my novel deals with the cultural style of Love Valley. The proprietors appreciate the advertisement since it’s an old-west-style tourist attraction. It’s a contemporary town but appears historical. I used actual stores and made certain they were in the proper locations. It’s important to have the facts correct if everything you write about a real location is meant to be taken as literal. I made it clear, up front, that some of my information would be fictional. My characters don’t depict any particular person in the town. I took liberties with the church and with Sarah’s Mosey Inn. I actually transported her house from a very different town. People see my book cover and ask where the house is. It makes for some interesting conversations in Love Valley, and it’s a great lead in for a book pitch.

Thanks , Melinda! After reading her book, and her posts on Facebook, I long to visit Love Valley. As I close, I know historical authors face unique challenges with setting. Even though they can visit the location of their books, in some cases it’s much different now from the time period in which they write. But they can talk with the locals about the town and their ancestors who might have lived there, go to the library, and conduct research.

No matter your setting, embrace it, indulge yourself in it, fully explore how it can work for your plot and characters. Above all, keep writing and keep reading! Until next time, blessings my friends.
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O Lord, and You exalt Yourself as head over all. (1 Chronicles 29:11)


  1. Me, too. Thanks, Joy! Blessings.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing -- I'll keep this blog in mind.


  3. I absolutely delight in stories where the setting is another character!