Where do novels come from? Just as “mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” novels also begin at a specific point, which even the novelist may not recognize until looking back much later.
Some writers start with a character—someone they saw at a bus stop, or one that simply springs into their minds and won’t go away. Others may see a news story about an incident. Their subconscious immediately begins adding the yeast of imagination, till eventually that tidbit rises and grows into a plot—often quite different from the original seed of inspiration.
For whatever reason, my mind most often fires off of setting. I’ve found repeatedly that if a setting doesn’t speak to me, my novel will never really come to life for me. If I haven’t found my setting, my plots tend to be mechanical and my characters wooden. I’m not sure why this is so, but it has happened often enough that I’ve been forced to recognize that finding my setting is always job #1.
As a reader, I’m immediately attracted to—or put off by—certain settings. When I see San Francisco, or a small New England village on a book cover, for instance, I’ll almost always pick it up for a closer look. And I once stuck with an awful book way too long, simply because I loved the old Florida, abandoned sugar plantation setting. On the other hand, I’m left entirely cold by books with sports settings (ballparks, tennis courts, speedways, gyms, etc.) or the ocean (marine biology, diving, etc.).
I’m always curious about settings that attract other people. Judging by popular cozy-mystery books I see, libraries and tea shops interest a lot of readers.
But the real estate agent’s mantra, “location, location, location,” isn’t all there is to setting. Time period also makes a huge difference. Some people favor contemporary stories, while others like specific historical settings (Regency, Civil War, Gilded Age, etc.). Sci-fi lovers often look to the as-yet uncharted future, or delve into time travel.
My work in progress, a middle-grade mystery, The Ghosts of Harpers Ferry, came right out of my fascination with that old town in the crease of the mountains, closed in by rivers and weighted with history. But even though the town’s history works its way into the plot, and onto nearly every page, the story takes place in a contemporary setting—because that’s what I like best to read and write.
Settings make a difference!