July 12, 2022
by Kristin Oakley
The Formula for Setting that Agents, Editors, and Readers Love
I like to think of the setting of a book as a character, one that puts the reader into the story and makes them feel as if they’re part of the adventure. Did you know that writing about and selecting the right setting can also help sell books?
Sales Potential of a Book’s Setting
Will a book set in Aurora, Illinois sell better than one set in Paris, France? It might, depending on the genre and context.
Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting you rewrite your entire novel just because you might sell a few more books. But it’s okay to consider the sales potential of your setting when writing your first draft.
How Do You Choose the Location?
Some genres and book ideas choose the setting for you, particularly memoirs and books about places. For instance, Author Sandra M. Colbert writes books of short stories that take place in the Chicago stockyards and the surrounding neighborhoods where she grew up. People love reading about their hometown and Sandra’s well aware of this. Every year she sells a good number of her books to local readers at Printer’s Row Literary Festival in Chicago.
Like Sandra, you might want to select locations you’re familiar with. This requires less research but you’ll still want to do some to guarantee accuracy. This is particularly true if you haven’t visited the place for a while.
If you’re not familiar with your location, be sure to research it. I came across this passage on page 33 in Stephen King’s novel Finders Keepers: “1978 - In upstate New York, with dawn not yet come but beginning to show the horizon’s dark outline behind them, they turned west on Route 92, a highway that roughly paralleled I-90 as far as Illinois, where it turned south and petered out in the industrial city of Rockford.”
I used to live in Rockford, so I’m familiar with the area. Driving from upstate New York to Illinois you have to round the south shore of a big body of water called Lake Michigan. From there, Rockford is one hundred miles northwest—not south.
The problem with this mistake is when I read the rest of the book, or other Stephen King novels, I have trouble trusting the authenticity of the writing. Factual inaccuracies, even in novels, pop the reader out of the story and make them distrust you as a writer. Don’t let happen!
Selecting a Location that is Important to the Story
Don’t just select any old setting. Ask yourself why this location? How will it enhance my story? What will it say about the characters? How will it affect the plot?
Selecting a Setting that will Help you Sell your Books
Cozy mysteries, thrillers, and romance novels are wonderful beach reads. If you write in these genres, you might consider setting your story in a resort area and then selling your books there. Cozy mystery writer (yes, that’s a genre) Christine DeSmet sets her Fudge Shop Mystery Series in Door County, Wisconsin where people throughout the Midwest go for summer vacation. You can find Christine’s books in many of the bookstores and fudge shops in that area.
Thinking of Setting as Another Character
Often, beginning novelists neglect the setting, paying more attention to their characters and plots. But a well-crafted setting can transport the reader into the location, helping to make them feel as if they are experiencing the story along with the characters.
When writing the setting, be sure to use the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). To avoid long descriptive passages, describe the setting as your characters interact with it. How does the setting affect their mood, their interactions with other characters, and their ability to achieve their goals?
Give Your Setting a Personality
As Nathan Bransford says in What Makes a Great Setting in a Novel:
“The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on characters’ lives. Instead, in the best worlds, there is a plot inherent to the setting itself.
It could be a place in turmoil (The Lord of the Rings), a place that is resisting change but where there are tensions roiling the calm (To Kill a Mockingbird), or a place where an old era is passing in favor of a new generation (The Sound and the Fury).
Basically, something important is happening in the broader world that affects the characters’ lives.”
Using Setting as a Plot Tool
Think of your setting as an important plot tool—something that adds tension or conflict.
- Selecting a historical setting: If you decide to use a historical setting, do your research when selecting your location. Novelist Susanna Calkins made it a point to set her Lucy Campion Mysteries in 1665-1666 London. Those were the years of the plague and the great fire which destroyed public records. Without those records of identification, chamber maids could become duchesses and often did, at least in Calkins’ books.
- Historic tension: In The Immortalists by Cloe Benjamin (https://www.chloebenjaminbooks.com/), young Simon decides to move from New York City to San Francisco to live as an openly gay man. Unfortunately, it’s the early 1980’s during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Simon’s fate would have been very different if Benjamin had kept him in NYC.
- Competing settings: Including two opposing settings in your story is a terrific plot technique. Both settings have their own potential for tension and can play nicely off each other. For example, Kansas is a vastly different place than the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Legal Issues Regarding Settings
Can you use a real place? Yes and no. It depends upon what you say about that location and how you use it in your story.
Negative Descriptions: Is it the scene of a crime? A hospital or nursing home where patients are being neglected or abused? A restaurant where the patrons come down with food poisoning? If you write something that will harm the reputation of that place, don’t use the real name of that business.
Positive Descriptions: Is your description of the place complimentary, such as a favorite family restaurant that has the best pies in town? Then the business owner probably won’t have an issue with you using their name. But just to be sure, ask the business owner for permission to use the name. It’s also good practice to have them sign a waiver. Added bonus—when your book is released, contact the business to see if you can hold a book release party and sell your books there.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction
Writing that is purportedly nonfiction is examined far more stringently for libel than a fictional text, but there are instances in which fiction writers have had to justify their material against claims of libel or have had their novels rejected by publishers because of fears of legal action.”
Check out The Ethics of Fiction Writing by Ron Hansen and Kenneth Manaster
Before you get too deeply into writing your book, determine whether having the name of the business in the story will create any problems in getting the book published.
Seeking Legal Advice
Your best bet is to simply make up a name for the place. If you deem it the upmost importance to keep the name, do your research to find out if using the name is legally feasible and check with a literary attorney. Midwest Book Review has a list of book publishing attorneys. Also, the Authors Guild provides legal advice to members.
By carefully selecting and properly researching and writing your setting, agents, editors, and most importantly, readers will appreciate the time you’ve taken to make the book authentic.
Kristin A. Oakley, a popular presenter at Let's Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference, is the author of two award-winning suspense thrillers, Carpe Diem, Illinois and God on Mayhem Street. She teaches writing workshops, has critiqued manuscripts and has helped writers hone their agent pitches. Kristin is writing a soon-to-be released young adult thriller series called The Devil Particle Series.
She reviews books and writes about being a novelist in her bi-monthly newsletter, available at kristinoakley.net.
Kristin Oakley is a Chicago Writers Association board member.
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