Creative writers often underestimate the impact of the geographical location within their story. Characters may live in the upper-class neighborhood of Stepford, a hut in a small farming village in Taiwan, or a huge tree house like in Swiss Family Robinson. Knowing your setting intimately sometimes requires comprehensive research, but your readers will surely appreciate the details.
Many times your setting will come to you as the plot and characters do, but before you get attached, ask yourself “What if?” Sure, your family will probably end up living in the suburbs, but what if they were actually gypsies living in a caravan and what if the wealthier residents were disgusted by them? Or what if instead of the suburbs, they lived in a floating village in outer space? What if the setting is in the Southern United States during the Civil War, or maybe even an 18th Century Scottish castle? Of course you may decide not use such exotic locations in your story, but as a creative writer it’s always important to ask what if? and to consider every option available and diplomatically. Writing is hard and authors cannot afford to be stubborn.
If you do end up making the setting of your story in a more exotic location then be sure you know that location very well. For instance, Agatha Christie wrote many of her novels such as A Caribbean Mystery, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun after spending considerable time in Egypt and the Caribbean while author Rydyard Kipling went to India before writing The Jungle Book.
Whether your genre is adventure, mystery, fantasy, horror, romance, as an author you must be experienced with that particular environment in order for you to accurately describe it to your readers. Your readers need to be convinced of the illusion that your story is really happening. This is done by knowing what animals and plants and insects inhabit the area, providing insight on the weather, what the locations smell like, what the food tastes like, how hot and humid it may be and any insights to cultural traditions. It’s most likely that your readers will not have been to these locations you’re writing about so you should vividly describe the details as best as possible in interesting and creative ways.
One of the factors that many creative writers neglect to understand is knowing the time zones. How do you know what time it is without looking at a clock? Do you look out the window and see if the sun is rising, straight up in the sky, or descending? Do you know it’s morning because the sidewalks are full of people in business suits with coffee cups in their hand? Or are people wearing sexy clothes and wide smiles like they are going out to the club? Keep in mind that the further away from the equator your story takes place, the longer days/nights become. Many places in Europe, Canada, Russia, South America, southern Africa, Alaska and Antarctica literally have several months of constant daylight in the summer and constant darkness in winter. With 24 hours of darkness for months, will your character learn that it’s breakfast time when he smells freshly baked cinnamon rolls from the bakery down the street? When the United States is experiencing hot July summers, Australian kids are bundled in winter coats on their way to school. When it’s Sunday afternoon in Vancouver, Canada, Sydney Australia is bustling with Monday workers. Writers need to keep in mind the time of year the book takes place. This is especially important if your characters plan to do any kind of traveling, international faxes, emails, phone calls or instant messaging. In one particular murder mystery, Jonathan Creek starring Alan Davies, a character even uses international time zones to get away with murder.
When it comes to the geographical location in your story, other details can be quite important to bring a sense of realism for your reader. There are five senses (and some believe there are even more). What kind of music do the street performers play? Can your character feel the beach sand between his toes? Will your character notice the fragrant jungle flowers or taste the exotic spices of new foods? And how do the locals dress? Every country has their own fashion trends whether they be clay beads and grass loincloths, expensive designers like Prada or kilts and Jacobite shirts. With fashion and world travel comes customs and traditions. Particular customs could be used in your creative writing to cause conflict. Customs may be local holidays or even family a simple dinner with the entire family each Sunday. These traditions included in your story will bring the reader closer to understanding the character through understanding the place he’s from and his reactions to the place he finds himself in.
There is literally an infinite possibility when it comes to the era and geographical setting of your story. Do your research; provide unique and interesting details that affect your plot and characters, and even better if you can travel in order to experience the details for yourself.
About Logan K. Scott
Logan K. Scott is the author of numerous successful mystery/thrillers. In addition to his publishing work, he has a BA degree from Brooks Institute and is the writer and producer for more than a dozen films.