Real life is quite a handy thing for a teller of tall tales, you know, a writer of fiction, to use.
By observing those around us we can come up with scenarios or ways to describe someone, or even create a character based on them. But the really handy thing to use from reality is the setting.
A setting can be a town, a city, a countryside, a historical site, a river, a lake, an ocean, a hill, a mountain, a whole range of mountains, plains, deserts.
Setting supplies weather conditions, climate, a geographical setting or a geological one. It gives the names of roads and brooks and streams and copses and mountains. It alerts us to geologic anomalies that might come in handy. Of the most awesome views a character might gaze out upon (FYI: Gates Pass west of downtown Tucson has a view that seems to go into eternity…or to the hazy mountains bordering it in the distance).
We have readymade settings all around us.
The trick is to decide how you want to use them.
It can be verbatim or as inspiration.
Personally, I like verbatim with inspiration, though pure imagination can kick in depending on where your story will take place. Perhaps when your story will take place.
Let’s look at STAR TREK as a for-instance. Going with the current movies starring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk rather than delve into the original series, any of the spin-offs, or the movies with the original crew.
What have they given us in regard to settings? Well, a lot really.
We’ve been to Kansas with a very young Jim Kirk and a pre-Star Fleet Academy Kirk. We’ve been to a futuristic city on Earth, a place that could be New York, Chicago, LA, Tokyo, Paris, Rio…though it seemed London to me. Can’t remember if it was identified as such or not. We’ve been to Vulcan and seen it destroyed. We’ve been to a planet where a volcano was about to destroy the very primitive people living there. We’ve been in that volcano, beneath the ocean in the Enterprise. We’ve crashed the Enterprise in a city on Earth and on a planet outside the known universe. We’ve been in space a lot of places and at least one of those was an entire mega city complex on a space station…I’d call it a settlement, in fact.
And much is familiar.
Now, although STAR TREK takes place far in the future and mankind has obviously made it past that Civilization I level (which we haven’t reached yet, being only at possibly 0.8 currently) and into Civilization II level, there are lots of familiar things setting-wise. While they’ve received an upgrade, there are families. If you live far enough outside of a mega city on Earth, like say the plains of Kansas, well, things aren’t going to have changed quite as much and can be fairly familiar to, oh, let’s say the tavern on the two-lane road that connects small farming communities…even if those communities use really modern farming techniques. We don’t know in STAR TREK because small farm communities in Kansas aren’t part of the storyline in the movie, but that bar sure is. And the clientele hasn’t really changed much over the centuries. Bar fights still erupt.
The landscape in Kansas still looks pretty much the same, too. There’s a lot of empty space out past Kansas City, whether you’re on the Missouri side or the Kansas side of the city. Chances are, even if cattle are no longer raised for consumption, something has replaced ranching and why shouldn’t it be something related to food production…however it is produced in the future.
Cities will have familiar features, too. Good parts of town and possibly not as well-kept parts of town. Poverty in the Star Trek universe has been erased on Earth, but has it other places? Diversity in the peoples rubbing shoulders is certainly far wider in selection, but that doesn’t mean some civilizations elsewhere don’t bring prejudices with them even if they are no longer prevalent on Earth. Kirk has always been open to romantic romps with females of various shades and physical attributes (like say, having tails?), but I don’t remember Klingons being as copacetic in relations with their old enemies. Not quite ready to let bygones be bygones. But that’s not quite setting. It certainly is the emotional climate though.
There will be various types of transportation, from walking to “beaming up”. In the 4th season of the TV show Eureka, when a wormhole glitch sends the main members of the cast back to 1947 when Eureka wasn’t yet a scientific community/town in the shade of Global Dynamics, pretty much the only employer as the town is sorta secret, but rather a post-WW II military camp, things are quite different in the same area. However, the physical features of the landscape are still the same. The same two-lane road leads into town and one travels through dense woods on that road. When they manage to get back to the 21st century and one of the “founders” of Eureka comes along for the trip, one of the first things he says is “I thought there would be flying cars”. Heck, in the 1950s we did expect there to be flying cars long before now. Where the frack are they?
And yes, I was a fan of Farscape, hence, “frack”.
Readymade settings can save you a lot of time…particularly if you’re writing contemporary tales.
Even if the place you want a story to “run” isn’t in your hometown, your neck of the country, or even in the country where you live or are a citizen, you can vacation in it. Oh, you don’t have to actually go there on vacation. You can look things up.
The important thing is to get what you find set down right in your story.
I stopped reading a very successful and popular author because on the first page of a novel written twenty plus years into her career she wrote that in Las Vegas, Nevada, the temperature was over 90 degrees at Christmas time. Sorry, I lived in Vegas for 14 years. Vegas is in a valley surrounded by mountains. Yes, it’s the desert but in December those mountains have snow on them. Winds rush down the sides of those mountains into the valley. It is nowhere near 90 degrees. It’s in the 60s most days, warmest might get into the 70s. At night it might even dip into the 30s. It was one sentence. Part of one sentence, and she got it oh so wrong. Nope. Not reading her ever again. She did lousy homework on a very readymade setting.
It’s when writers get things right about settings that actually exist or evoke one that does exist that stories sing…particularly for people familiar with the area or that type of place. And you don’t need to be a current resident or a native of a place to know it well. Hey, I’m from Ohio. But in following spousal jobs for 22 years, I am familiar with Southern California, Tucson, Arizona, as well as Vegas. In doing research for my own books, I’ve walked the older sections of San Francisco, traveled on the BART, did a daily train run down the Hudson River line into NYC, done Deadwood, Cheyenne, Tombstone, Viriginia City in Nevada (I write historicals of the Old West), but I’ve also researched the Old Spanish Trail (El Camino Real) from one side of Texas to the other for a story set in 1868 by not going there. I’ve poured over Victorian Ordinance Maps of Shropshire for the lay of the land and the railway stops for just part of a book that concluded in England in 1879.
There are all sorts of ways you can vacation while collecting information for readymade settings. Come October 16th, we’ll be looking at lots of ways to use or rework things from real life to dazzle readers within our fictional worlds. Hope you’ll join me October 16th through November 12 for READYMADE SETTINGS here at Savvy Authors.
We should even have got you up and running for work you might be doing for National Novel Writing Month, too!
Beth Daniels’ career as a published author began in 1990 with the publication of Nikrova’s Passion, a romantic-suspense-comedy set in England. Fortunately, Beth had done a three-week long jaunt to Britain long before then and what she’d seen lead her heroine’s feet from one historical site to the next. Unfortunately, Beth did not meet a dashing Yard detective herself, but fortunately didn’t land in a life-threatening position as her heroine did, either. It was her first adventure in using readymade settings in her fiction though, something she has continued doing throughout the 27 years of her writing career. Beth writes romance as Beth Henderson and is posed for novel-length publication as J.B. Dane in fantasy and mystery, and as Nied Darnell in Steampunk.
[box] NEW RELEASE:
SUPERSTAR. A decade-spanning tale of soulmates torn apart by each’s pursuit of a career in the late 20th century.
Paul Montgomery’s dreams are of music, of writing it as well as performing. His journey takes him from covering Beatle songs for high school dances in the mid-1960s to being acclaimed for his diversity in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Particularly for composing a library of love songs. With sold out concerts around the world, singles and albums that repeatedly go gold then platinum, and innovative music videos on MTV, he seems to lead a charmed life. At least, professionally. Along the way there is tragedy: the loss of a friend to the Viet Nam war, the attempt to save a fellow rocker from her drug addiction, but it is winning and losing the only woman he’s ever loved – twice – that is a never healing wound in his heart.
For Aurora Chambers, it is the world of fashion that beckons. A scholarship for a summer design program in London is a carrot even her love for Paul can’t best. Hurt by his seeming denigrating of her aspirations, she throws herself into the heart of Carnaby Street in 1967, and the arms of her instructor, Trevor Harris, a self-serving man who plans to use her talent as his stepping stone to better things. Unaware of Paul’s continuing love for her, Rory binds her future to Trevor’s. It is a step she soon learns to regret though it does bring her career success beyond her previous dreams. With a clothing line that repeatedly wins accolades on the catwalks, she has only one stumbling block. Her designs all carry Trevor’s name, not her own. Aurora must marshal some of Trevor’s own devious traits to take back what is hers. Secretly, she follows Paul’s rise through the music trades, occasionally mourning the loss of what they’d had. When a second chance at happiness with him appears, she grabs it. And nearly destroys them both.
Because, sometimes love simply isn’t enough.