Every piece of writing has a setting. It takes place somewhere. Even essays and opinions, really, have an implied location of some sort. But I’m not concerned about those right now. Nor am I going to write of poetry or songs though these, too, have their settings. Closely drawn sometimes, barely sketched at others — I think the best work of that sort finds a balance between the concrete and the universal. What I wish to explore here is stories. Fiction.
A tale needs to solidly grounded in a location to feel real. It can, of course, be a completely imaginary place but it had better seem to exist. This is one reason I would not begin pretty much any novel (and many short stories) without drawing a map. How can my reader visualize these places if I do not have a clear idea about them?
And that is not only broad topographical maps — mountains, rivers, cities, etc. It is also streets and shops and floor plans. I know the exact layout of the surf shop in SHAPER. I know how many blocks it is to drive from that shop to the pier and what is on either side of the road. Having these concrete details goes a long way toward making a story seem more real. Even if one doesn’t actually use them in the story, it is good to KNOW them.
I will admit that the Cully Beach of that novel is based on real towns on Florida’s Atlantic coast. I chose not to use one that truly exists so I might have leeway in my details, but it does owe a lot to Flagler Beach. Also to Cocoa Beach, where I lived for a time, and various other little towns along A-1-A.
Similarly, the town of Ruby, the setting of THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (and mentioned in SHAPER), is a made-up place on the Gulf side of the state. Yes, it owes a good bit to Steinhatchee where I lived for many years, but also to Horseshoe Beach and any of a number of other small towns in the same region (the motel is lifted right out of Perry). Even the larger Crystal River — at least in the creation of the name. There are certainly many differences from Steinhatchee, just as there are a number of similarities.
And the ‘Genoa’ mentioned as Ted’s home town in SHAPER is pretty much Naples. I did consider using the actual city name but, recognizing I may set stories there eventually, chose to keep it fictional. I know of some novels set in Naples (where I largely grew up) and when I come across inaccuracies in them, it bothers me! It’s better to put some space between the ‘real’ town and the fictional one. But I do mention actual places, Panama City, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville and so on, just to set the imaginary towns into the real Florida.
Of course, my other books are complete fantasies and have no relation to any place that exists in this world. If anything, this means I have to be even more meticulous about my setting. Not just maps are needed but one needs to recognize the implications of those maps. How will those mountains affect the weather patterns? Can wine grapes grow in that region? What sort of soil underlies that valley? How long does travel take from this castle to that town?
I am, admittedly, the sort of person who enjoys working out those details. The setting then become the canvas on which I can paint my story. Or a set for my actors, maybe. Whatever metaphor one fancies. One thing is certain, anyway — as in real estate, the first concern should be location, location, location.