5 Ways to Choose a Novel's Setting
When I started writing Contagion I had the main settings of the story firmly in mind: in fact, the settings really came before the story, and very much informed its development. The chapters in the first novel of this trilogy alternate between two points of view. When it begins, one character is a subject in an underground research institute hidden in the Shetland Islands, and the other lives in Killin.
For over ten years now I’ve lived in the Chilterns in England, but I hale from a nomadic life around the globe – France, Canada and Australia have all been called home at different times. So how did my characters end up in Scotland – a place I love and have visited many times, true, but one where I’ve never lived? Why should I, or anyone, choose one particular setting for a story? And how do you make that setting work?
Serve your story
This has to be at the top of the list. What works for the plot of your story and your characters, and why? If you can answer this, you are a long way into understanding your story and why you want to write it before you’ve even jotted down the first words.
In the case of Contagion, I needed my research institute to be in a remote, sparsely populated place; the kind of place things could happen and go unnoticed. For a while I considered using Fair Isle, but the presence of Sullom Voe on the Mainland of Shetland gave me ideas for the plot, so one fed into the other. As for Killin, I needed this second character to be within a reasonable distance of Shetland – and the next point helped me choose it:
Find a place that inspires you
Some places just make me want to write
Some places just make me want to write. We holidayed by the Lake of Menteith in conjunction with an appearance at the Stirling Off the Page festival several years ago, and sitting outside and staring at the water and listening to the birds was one of these places. I was working on Book of Lies at the time, but I just knew I would have to go back and write there again. It was around this time that the idea for Contagion began.
I came back for a research and writing trip and explored the area more widely. I will confess to first choosing to check out Killin because of the name: if you read Contagion you might see why! But as soon as we drove into Killin, over the river by the Falls of Dochart, saw Ben Lawers above and Loch Tay below, I just knew: it had to be there. I saw my character so clearly in this place. I wasn’t sure why at first, but when I came back to stay in Killin itself for more research and writing, I think I worked it out:
Uncover the reason behind the reason
For me, the scale of the landscape and the sense of timelessness fed the story. You could stand there and be completely alone and imagine the world away; think that if everything changed and we were all gone this place would exist as it did long before we blighted the earth; that it would go on and on and on, for ever.
It was beautiful, inspiring, yes, but melancholic at the same time. Or maybe that was just because I was imagining what would happen there in my story, and thinking how little the trees, the mountains and the loch would miss us if we were gone.
Choose places you can visit
The real details you see with your own eyes are the ones that will make your story sing
The real details you see with your own eyes are the ones that will make your story sing. It’s not always possible to visit settings – for example, in a previous story, Mind Games, part of it was set on a place called Inaccessible Island, which was, well, pretty much completely inaccessible. It did have the benefit that hardly anyone had ever been there so it was unlikely anyone was going to say I got something wrong! But whenever possible I try to visit real places I’m using, to find those little details that are hard to unearth in other ways.
Beyond these real concrete details is also the feeling of the place. With Contagion, in some ways this was even more important to me as I was writing it – hopefully this comes across to readers as well.
Pick places you want to visit!
All right, this one may not have literary merit, but a happy author writes well, in my view, and going on research and writing trips to places I already love or new places I want to discover makes me very happy!
I love the sea and I love islands, the more remote the better. The Shetland Islands were high on my list of places I had never been that I wanted to visit.
And as soon as I’d had a taste of writing while gazing at a Scottish loch and listening to the birds, I wanted it again and again… and I have no doubt at all that I’ll be back writing there soon.
For more tips on getting your setting and world building right, check out our post about building a sense of place.