I grew up on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi River Delta, one of the poorest places in the country, in the 80s, when family farms were growing scarce as ivory billed woodpeckers. It was all rice fields and mosquitoes, flat land stretching further than you could squint. The state was ranked 50th in the country in education and first in crystal meth labs. My father and most of his friends were war veterans, hard men who drank and swore and spent much of their time playing practical jokes on each other. My childhood friends grew up to be drug dealers, criminals, or generally shiftless because of the scarcity of opportunities, except for a handful who left the state as soon as they graduated high school and never looked back. No matter how far I travel, geographically or socioeconomically, even though I now live and work at an east coast boarding school, I am still tethered to the milieu of the place of my birth and childhood. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in the suburbs of DC. Her father was a pipe organ builder from German stock with big hands that could seemingly crush a brick, but whose delicate disposition leaned more towards arpeggio runs and the tedium of building and repairing complex and ancient machinery. Whereas mine was a childhood of seclusion and ruralness, hers was one of exploration, namely of the international culture unique to DC city life. In a similar way, she was shaped by aspects of the locale of her childhood which will forever color any reaction she has to any situation. We both live in the same place, now, but our interpretations and reactions to even innocuous things are often wildly different because of our vastly different backgrounds.
In an interview with Tamler Sommers (collected in A Very Bad Wizard) the philosopher Galen Strawsen argues that freewill, as we popularly consider it, is an illusion. The crux of his quite convincing argument is that even though we are usually free to choose whichever direction or option we’d prefer in a given situation, the choice we will make is based on qualities, characteristics, preconceptions, experiences, etc. which have all been borne of a certain set of circumstances (where we come from, when we grew up, how we were raised, etc.). This set of circumstances, which is quite complex, mind you, determines how we will react/choose in any given situation. And even though we’ve left one situation behind, our reactions and preconceptions are still colored by our experiences, even in new situations.
To put it simply, we are the sum of our experiences. When it comes to writing characters, they are, likewise, the sum of their experiences (since they do represent human beings) and these experiences are tied in to location. Therefore, in fiction, setting isn’t just a location, though it is also a location. Or rather, location is complex because a lot of details come with the location. Though it may seem like I’ve moved beyond “setting” I would argue that all of these details I’ve referenced (and probably more) are all necessary to create a strong setting. Geographical location, historical period, cultural aspects, and socioeconomic details are all important elements of setting, and there are more details we could include. Family history could be linked to setting if it’s linked to a place. (This can get pretty complicated.)
So this seems like an awful lot of trouble, and you might be saying; why should I bother? Well, a strong setting helps establish the mood (an upbeat setting can frame an upbeat story or a downbeat story that’s at odds with the setting, adding a bit of tension) and gives context to the story, since setting influences the characters so much. Setting can also tell the readers a lot about who the characters are. A really strong setting can act as a character itself, which adds another level to the story. Since setting has so much influence on characters’ motivations, a strong setting helps characterize and also adds believability to the story. This adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the story because the lushness helps them get inside the story.
Creating a strong setting involves using specific details, details which give the illusion of familiarity. As we discussed with characterization, setting can be related by stating it directly (i.e. “He lived in the wilds of northern Montana.”) or by sharing details indirectly, more like hinting at things (tell me what a moose smells like up close). As with characterization, direct setting can be necessary sometimes, but indirect setting tends to be much more effective.
So let’s go back to that idea of the specific details that give the illusion of familiarity. How does a writer get these details to add them to a story? Research? (I googled moose and Montana before I typed that bit above because I didn’t even know if moose lived in Montana.) Sometimes, but one of the mistakes some writers make is over researching setting and throwing in all these details which make the setting believable but also overpower the actual story (Michael Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay comes to mind. Chabon describes advertisements in magazines of the time with very specific details that are totally irrelevant, for example). Also, these can be tedious to read. So research can be good, sure, but you’ll find that most writers research more to give themselves a feel for a particular setting rather than to find a lot of details to incorporate into a story. It’s all about finding the few choice details that map out a setting without becoming tedious. (That’s good because it’s easier to fake.) I like to think of it as something like sketching. When sketching a human face, for example, an artist doesn’t try to capture each and every detail; rather, s/he might only add a few strategically placed details to give the illusion of having captured every detail. The eye fills in the rest once it’s been convinced of the illusion of the face by those few details. This is an important idea because a writer can research for months and not ever find those choice details which create the illusion of familiarity. Another analogy would be to consider the establishing shot in film. When a director wants to show that this particular scene is in Paris, how does he do it? He shows a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Done. Print. Move on. This is a bit clichéd, but the idea is sound. In writing, that choice detail is very effective and also sometimes very difficult.
Some people will say the only way to really discover these details is to have firsthand experience with a particular setting. Those people don’t really understand the whole “writing” thing (as in “making stuff up”). It takes a trained eye to recognize these details. And it is difficult. But the right few details really do mean the difference between a rich, evocative setting and just a description of where a story takes place. Think about how you might describe your house, for example. Is it one story tall? Ranch style? An apartment? How many windows on the front? What’s the square footage? Now think about how many stories you’ve read that include any of this information in a description of a house. I’m betting none or almost none, or these details are given incidentally but quickly forgotten. The real description is the cobweb in the corner on the peeling paint of the porch or the oak tree in the front yard—not so much what kind of tree it as, but the fact that a pigeon nested in it ten years ago but was chased from the nest by crows and your daughter tried to rescue the eggs, leaving them under a lamp in her room, but none of them hatched. The reader doesn’t know the dimensions of the house but knows it was a home, now. (And the reader doesn’t really care about the dimensions, to be honest.)
*Something else you might notice is that these descriptions I just gave do multiple jobs. They relate specific pertinent details (an oak tree, peeling paint) but they also share an emotional inventory of the place and hint at certain behaviors of the characters. It’s a good rule of thumb that any element in a story should serve multiple purposes. A bit of dialogue should not only relate some piece of information but also characterize the speaker and maybe give some setting info as well (an accent can tell us we’re in a certain region of the country or world, for example). The same is true for setting. Each detail in a story should serve at least two functions, preferably three or more. This is true of characterization, dialogue, and any other element. If it doesn’t, if it’s only serving one purpose, it probably can be cut or needs to be tweaked to make it carry its fair share.