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Books, Features, Places

A World Away – Geographical Settings in Fiction

Every time I write a new piece for my blog I end up with ideas for two or three more!  I’m now compiling my Top 10 Summer Reads listing (coming 18 May) and I’m aiming to include a wide variety of settings from Australia to England; coastal, city, country.  This got me thinking about how important location is to a book; when someone tells me what they’re reading, it’s usually one of the first things they mention, and if not, it’s the first thing I ask.  It’s such a big topic I’m dividing it into two posts – this one is about geographical settings in the wide sense and a future one will be on ‘specific environment’ settings such as schools, psychiatric hospitals, workplaces and any others you care to suggest.

Why does place matter in fiction?

I think the settings (in both the above senses) in a novel often contribute as much as the writing itself to the overall feel and atmosphere.  In many cases, place also gives rise to both character and story; think about To Kill a Mockingbird, or Memoirs of a Geisha – they simply could not have been set anywhere else.  To some extent this is true of many novels.

How do writers create a sense of place?

Hundreds of tiny elements make up a place and every writer’s approach will be different depending on their style and what they are trying to achieve, but much of it comes down to the basic tenets of good writing:  employing all the senses – visuals are obviously very important but so too are sounds, smells, taste; not piling on too much detail or description; creating a synergy between character/story/setting.  Tea Obreht did this in The Tiger’s Wife, where deeply rooted local traditions and beliefs bring a fascinating vibrancy to war-torn (former) Yugoslavia and enable the reader to understand the characters more fully.

Through whose eyes?

I’ve realised that there are several layers to the way locations work and are perceived.  First there’s the writer’s relationship with the place (and time) they choose – usually they know it well enough or have put in the work and research necessary to make it seem real, but I’m sure we’ve all read a few books where that wasn’t the case.  Then there are the characters: how do they relate to their environment?  Is it their own or is it unfamiliar?  Many novels include a physical as well as a narrative journey. In Sita Brahmachari’s Jasmine Skies, Mira, a British girl of nearly 15, visits India for the first time and is both enchanted by its exotic richness (as seen in the lovely photo of Kolkata by Shelley King, above) and horrified by the poverty and suffering she witnesses.  There’s always dramatic potential in the arrival of outsiders with a different perspective on things, for example, Britain as seen in the late 1940s through the eyes of Andrea Levy’s immigrants from Jamaica in Small Island or over several decades by Stephen Newman in Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good.

From places you don’t know…

Finally, there’s our response as readers, and even this is complicated.  You may be reading this in a 20th floor apartment in Hong Kong or on a farm in the Australian Outback.  What’s completely alien to one person is someone else’s everyday life.  Good writing has the power to transport the reader to places they may never see in real life, nor even want to.  I love that temporary, total immersion into an ‘other’ world.  Before reading Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) I knew nothing at all about Nigeria or Biafra; Susanna Quinn’s Glass Geishas (7 June 2012) is both a fun read and a shocking eye-opener into the sex industry in contemporary Japan.  I’ve never been to South America but have read some evocative novels set there, such as The City of Your Final Destination by Peter Cameron, set in Uruguay.  The setting of a book doesn’t have to be attractive, it has to be vivid.  In After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Evie Wyld shows that even harsh and unforgiving depictions (Australia/Korea/Vietnam) can be a thing of beauty.  Speaking of beauty, I’ll wait until next week’s book review to heap praise on M L Stedman for The Light Between Oceans, set on a tiny remote island off the coast of Western Australia.  Surely a first?

…to your own back yard

This won’t apply to everyone, but if you live in a place which is very well-known in books and films or someone happens to write a novel set in a location you know, maybe from your childhood or travels, that familiarity adds an extra dimension which can often be very enjoyable, or if it doesn’t ring true, very irritating.  I recently heard a literary agent say that novels set in London or New York have a real head start as even readers who haven’t been there feel a connection.  (Although she then went on to say it’s much harder with an unknown place, Marina Lewycka proved it can be done when she set A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian in Peterborough.)  Having spent half my life in London, I’m spoiled for choice; one of my favourites is Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, set not far from where I live, and I also really rate her novel The Believers set in New York.  I’m a regular visitor and have read so many novels set there (and particularly in Brooklyn) that I think I’ll save that subject for another day.

Pretty or gritty?

Gritty usually gets my vote.  I made a huge list of titles planning this piece, of which I’ve only used a handful, but most of them reveal the underside of the places they’re set and life there.  Now and again I enjoy something cosy, like Eleanor Brown’s small town Ohio in The Weird Sisters, but generally my taste leans more towards realism than escapism.  Joanne Harris’s novels set in France are hugely popular but although I liked Chocolat, Rose Tremain’s Trespass, a dark tale of two pairs of siblings, English and French, battling it out over rural property in the South of France, is more my kind of thing.

What’s yours?  Which novels took you to a different place, or made you feel right at home?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


10 thoughts on “A World Away – Geographical Settings in Fiction

  1. What a great post! Setting is very important for me, too, and I particularly like real settings, especially those that are familiar to me, although like you , I also enjoyed discovering things about Nigeria in Half a Yellow Sun.I recently read The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck – wonderful stuff set in rural China. I like to read novels set near the sea or on wild and windy moors. I also like things set in strange old houses. I could go on…

    I look forward to the next ‘settings’ post!

    Posted by susan elliot wright | May 7, 2012, 13:13
    • Thank you Susan, I had a lot of fun thinking about this topic and came up with a list as long as my arm. Given your taste, I bet you will LOVE The Light Between Oceans. I’m with you on strange old houses and so are a lot of other people.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 7, 2012, 15:22
  2. Awesome post, Isabel! I love books that take me away to another place. “Eat, Pray, Love” is always a good one for doing a little literary sight-seeing without the cost of a plane ticket. 🙂

    Posted by Writerlious | May 7, 2012, 14:58
  3. Hi Isabel, very thought-provoking post (and also an easy way for me to add to my to-read list)! Because it is so clear how important setting is in novels, I’m feeling that I really must focus on it more in my own writing. One of the best ways to make your novel richer through setting, as you point out, is to place it in your home town or another location with which you are very familiar. One of my personal issues is that I’ve never been able to finish a novel set in a place where I live – I somehow need more separation between my life and my fiction. Perhaps more research is in order? Thanks for the great post.

    Posted by Kristin | May 9, 2012, 14:15
    • Hi Kristin thanks for your comment and glad you found the post interesting. I have always believed setting to be important in novels, but until I sat down to write this article I had never entirely thought about the Hows? and the Whys?

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 9, 2012, 16:06


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