How often have you heard someone say of a book they loved: “I felt like I was there?”
The setting of a novel can take many forms. It can be vast and all-encompassing like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or small and stifling like Emma Donoghue’s Room. It can be exotic, like the colonial Indo-China of Greene’s The Quiet American, or outwardly mundane like Gillian Flynn’s suburbia in Gone Girl. It can change over time, like John Lanchester’s Hong Kong in Fragrant Harbour. It can be entirely imaginary or apparently real, or a little of all and everything in between. In fiction, ‘place’ is wherever matters to your characters, but the most powerful stories transport their readers there wholeheartedly, wherever ‘there’ may be.
To truly transport readers, a setting must be more than a mere backdrop. The most memorable locations are central to the story itself, adding to the readers’ understanding of characters, building the atmosphere and driving the action forward. Their every detail, beguiling or terrifying, is charged with emotion. They are not striking for how they look or smell or sound in isolation, but for how they make their readers feel.
So how do you impart a location with emotion, and bring it to life? The key is in knowing your characters well. In fiction as in life, everyone comes with a context – a set of past experiences and current circumstances which are intrinsically linked to them, which have helped form them on every day of their fictional lives leading to the point at which you started writing, and which will continue to form them until you are done. What makes a fictional world authentic is the eyes through which it is viewed. The context of your characters must colour their perceptions to fill your readers with elation or dread.
One of my favourite passages from any novel is a perfect example of this. In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, Bruno’s perception of a merry-go-round is coloured the most wonderful, deepest black by his murderous intentions. He describes “...a forest of nickel-plated poles crammed with zebras, horses, giraffes, bulls and camels all plunging down or upwards... frozen in leaps and gallops as if they waited desperately for riders... He felt he was about to experience again some ancient, delicious childhood moment that the steam calliope’s sour hollowness, the stitching hurdy-gurdy accompaniment, and the drum-and-cymbal crash brought almost to the margin of his grasp.” The merry-go-round, normally considered an innocent ride, is made entirely sinister by Bruno’s perception of it. Highsmith renders his thoughts in his own language to build the atmosphere, creating an arresting sense of place.
My own novels are set in Asia, with mixed casts of Western and Asian characters. How they perceive the world is a question I ask myself time and again. In The Road to Rangoon, Michael is the son of the British Ambassador. He sees the ramshackle towns of 1980s Burma as an exotic playground, full of opportunities for adventure and intrigue. For Thuza, the same streets hold painful memories of her missing family. By comparison, in the dense teakwood forests of the highlands, Michael feels isolated and afraid. Thuza is at ease in the forests, however. She knows how to hide and thrive in the wilderness. For years, the trees have kept her safe. My two characters visit the same locations, but they feel very differently about them. They notice different details and use different words to describe them. Between them, they build a more complex, more faithful, more compelling sense of place.
The same principles of filtering perceptions apply for wherever you’re writing about. Consider a typical suburban living room, for example, and a family together one Sunday afternoon. The mother’s attention might be snared a mirror, the one in the corner farthest from the window where the light makes her look old and tired, and not at all like when she first hung it on the wall. Her daughter might notice the mirror for a different reason; for how it lets her see her father’s face when she sits in the armchair and pretends to read. Her father might never even register the mirror. His attention is always ever only on the rolling news broadcasts on Channel 24. In the same room, to different viewpoints, it’s not the objects that are mentioned which matter, but why the objects are mentioned at all.
The trick to creating a memorable sense of place, therefore, is not to list features as they may be objectively described, but to let your characters select a few judicious details that make suggestions about their psychological state, or reveal elements of their past lives or future aspirations, and reinforce the mood you would like to create. Think about the metaphorical power of the language you chose too; the way individual words, sentences and larger units impart emotion and personality, whether spoken directly by your characters or not. Little details, precisely picked and dripped throughout the narrative will add up to more than the sum of their parts. Thoughtfully selected adjectives too, will electrify your narrative with associations. A musty yellow sofa sets a very different tone for a room than a sunny yellow one. Make the details your characters chose at least as vivid as life, if not more so, as if they are passing through a hi-res lens. The best settings are active, personal and vibrant, and utterly inseparable from the characters that inhabit them. Place is never just place alone.
Lucy Cruickshanks’ love of travel inspires her writing. A great fan of the underdog, she’s drawn to countries with troubled recent histories, writing about periods of time when societies are at their most precarious and fraught with risk. Her debut novel, The Trader of Saigon, was shortlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and the Guardian Not The Booker Prize, and named a Top Ten Book of 2013 by The Bookbag. The Road to Rangoon was released in September 2015. She lives in Hampshire, UK, and divides her time between writing and caring for her two young sons. Find out more on her website, and find her on Twitter and Facebook.