- You need to know more about the setting than you will use in the story.
- It’s harder to invent a setting than to research a historical setting.
- A map of the setting keeps it consistent.
Using places I’ve been is all very well for stories set in the real world, but sometimes a story has to be set in a place a haven’t been and can never go. Sometimes that’s because the place is in the past or the future, so it’s an extrapolation of a real place. Sometimes it’s a place that has never existed, such as the Nazi space station in Under the Hooked Cross.
Invention is harder than appropriation
The first time I wrote an invented setting was with Rainfire by Night, set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland. The geography was real, but the climate and society had changed dramatically enough to make it an invented setting rather than an extrapolation of a real one. No problem, I thought, I can just make it all up. It will be much easier than having to research it.
I spent longer getting the setting to make sense than I spent writing the story. Everything about the environment and the economy had to make sense, even I never mentioned most of what I worked out in the story. For example, if I had someone wearing wool, that meant there had to be sheep, which meant they had to be grazed, which was something of a strategic weakness if your neighbours are of a raiding disposition. But woollen clothing doesn’t just leap off the back of a sheep. Someone has to weave it, which meant that there had to be people who specialised in weaving. The story contains no description of anyone actually weaving because it didn’t fit the narrative, but I needed to know how everything worked if it was going to make sense. I couldn’t risk a reader wondering where something came from without an answer presenting itself.
The upside to the process was that it threw up a few things that enhanced the story. The people I was writing about collected metal left over from the modern age to make their tools and weapons, which underlined the fact that they could not forge steel, which showed they were a society in terminal decline.
It was hard work but I enjoyed the process and I couldn’t have written the story without it. The setting would have lacked detail, and the story wouldn’t have felt grounded. However, I was completely wrong when I thought it would be easier to make things up than to research them. I’ve written several stories set in Regency London, and all I needed to do for them was to read a few books and download a map from the internet.
When I pontificate on the subject of needing a coherent economy to an invented world, I’m occasionally asked why it matters. The economy of the world is rarely what the story is about. It’s a good question. Part of the answer refers back to Susan Hill and Val McDermid’s point
that the more plausible the setting is, the more likely the reader is to believe the less plausible aspects of the story. Another part of the answer is that building a coherent world is likely to being up details that will enhance the story.
One advantage of having spent as much time as I have critiquing is that I’ve begun to notice certain tropes that appear regularly in stories I see for critique, but very rarely in published stories. The discrepancy is revealing.
One such trope is the isolated village, usually with a mediaeval level of technology, used as a setting for a fantasy story with a lot of magic in it. Fantasy stories have been set in European mediaeval villages for as long as there have been fantasy stories in European languages, but the problem comes when the village appears to be in complete isolation. It ignores the fact that even a mediaeval village that did little more than sustain itself was dependent on technology and trade. Hoes and scythes with metal heads either had to be forged by a blacksmith or traded for. In the former case, there needed to be a supply of iron ore and trees to supply the charcoal. In the latter case, the village could not be isolated. Similarly, if the characters ever eat bread, there needs to be a mill somewhere.
That’s not to say that every tradesman in the village needs to be introduced, but considering these things is likely to add a level of realism that will ground the story and should give some colour to the background.
Know your way around
If the character is going to move through the setting at all, I need to have the geography of my setting very clear in my head. With real settings, there will probably be readers who know them and who would be knocked out of the story if one of my Regency London characters turned their carriage from Gracechurch Street into Oxford Street because they would know Oxford Street is nowhere near Gracechurch Street. With Under the Hooked Cross, which is set on an invented space station, I needed to make sure that the laboratory pod wasn’t next to the communications pod in one part of the story and on the opposite side of the station in another.
Another reason for knowing the geography of the setting is that it tells me what the character is going to notice as they move from one place to another. As with all descriptions, setting is best described by a steady drip feed of details rather than by condensing the whole description in one paragraph. That means I need to know what is going to catch my character’s eye as they move through the landscape I’m dropped them into. Or possibly their nose or their ear. It’s not possible to plan where the delicate lady needs to reach for her scented handkerchief because the carriage is passing a tannery or when the newcomer to the space station might notice the condensation on the bulkhead, but if I have a clear idea of what is where, I can leave it to spontaneity.