Setting is important and should be as carefully crafted as character and plot. And as with both of these you don’t have to give every detail but you have to know all of the detail. A reader should be able to ask you any question about all of these and you should be able to answer, even if you’re talking about details you haven’t revealed. Even more importantly, you should be able to ask your reader the same questions and they should come up with more or less the same answers.
Yes, spooky. Don’t ask me how it works but it does. There is also something uncanny about the way we manage to select the right details that convey the whole. I think it’s something to do with the subconscious though I’m not sure. PhD topic, anyone?
One exception might be plot in young adult novels where a writer may claim some ignorance allowing the reader to decide. Even then, though, the writer must be well aware of the same number of possibilities.
Before I wrote the Peace Child trilogy I spent months and months working out the details of Kaleem’s world. What did people eat and wear? How were they educated? How did they travel? What were their values? How was their society ordered? As this was dealing with earth fifteen centuries into the future, what might be logical developments based on what is happening today?
A mixture of reasoning and imagination comes into play here.
I made notes on my thinking about this setting whilst in cafes, pausing during a long car journey, on short train journeys and in hotel rooms. I did my thinking whilst ironing, walking or on long drives.
I thought I had this world all sussed out. However, as I started writing I discovered I needed to work out some more details.
Always the question is: what would it be like if this world was thus and how will these characters, given their personalities, react in these circumstances which inevitably include the setting?
Here we have a mixture of verifiable facts, primary resources (diaries, letters, photos, film – particularly amateur), repeated experience and again the imagination to work with. Given that the women wore calf-length dresses by then, bobbed their hair, and, if in Germany, were struggling with mass inflation and the beginnings of a depression, what would it have been like? These are issues I’m dealing in Clara’s Story, the fictionalised biography of Clara Lehrs, Holocaust victim. For sister novel, The House on Schellberg Street, a story about Holocaust survivors and German innocence, I’ve taken train journeys, looked at documents and letters written at the time, studied amateur footage in Auschwitz, read eyewitness accounts of the Kindertransport and attended several 1940s’ events. A central true story that never had an explanation is uncovered here - just how did Clara Lehrs manage to keep up to sixty children with Downs Syndrome and severe learning difficulties hidden during World War II when even she herself, Jewish by nationality but not be religion, was forced out of Schellberg Street, first to a ghetto in the Black Forest, then to Theriesenstadt and finally to Treblinka where she was murdered? Here I use “what if” to work out what may have happened.
This might appear to be the freest form. The river can run backwards. There is neither future nor past to be accounted for. Anything goes. Except: it must be logical and consistent. Everything needs to be worked out, just as in science fiction. We must relate all of that actually to our world or neither we nor our readers can understand. What is the equivalent of what we do here?
We might think that if we set our story in society as we know it in the 21st Century the setting is less of a challenge. However, we need to remember that the particular combination of motivations, personalities and constraints imposed by the setting is unique in every story. The writer needs to establish those just as carefully here as in the other stories. Both reader and writer should be able to answer the questions mentioned above.
Aren’t we advised to write what we know?
Arguably if we only ever did that we would never write science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction. In fact, it might not be possible to write any fiction at all. We’re not describing what has actually happened. We are inventing a story. Yet we do actually do that from our own experiences. We tend to see our characters as pretty much like us and ask ourselves what we would do in the circumstances into which we put them. Part of the circumstances can be a lack – such as the lack of emotion in Star Trek’s Spock. We base the new worlds on the worlds we know and assume we need to replicate human experience. And often we create for ourselves experiences we know we need to have in order to understand our stories and render them authentic for our readers.
How do we show our readers all of that?
The temptation is to use a lot of exposition and I’ve seen several new writers do that. This is where some trust in creative process needs to come in and with that an acknowledgement that reading is in fact a part of creative process.
But we do need to show and not tell. Let it be matter of fact. It is just part of what is. If we write with the knowledge that all of the care in our research has given us somehow the message comes across as if the little that we write carries the DNA of the whole. I don’t know how it works but it does.
If you want to see a master at work, look at the novels of Oisin McGann. In particular, The Gods and Their Machines.