What would the story of Harry Potter have been without Hogwarts? Could the characters have carried it off on their own? How would the plot have fared somewhere else?
Setting is an integral part of some stories and incidental in others. I love reading Janet Evanovich, whose Stephanie Plum series is set in “the Burg”, a tight community in New Jersey. That setting works perfectly for Janet’s bail bonds woman to run into outlandish characters and situations.
Maeve Binchy wrote about Ireland. Although her small-town settings were important, I believe you could tell the story in other rural environments. Whoops! As I wrote that sentence, I realized that, for Binchy, the choice of a rural setting was paramount. Although her stories are more character-driven, the characters couldn’t live anywhere else but among small populations where everyone knows each other. I guess setting has levels of importance.
When I pick up a book, I like to immerse myself in the story through the author’s eyes. Sometimes, such close association with the narrative backfires. For instance, while reading our own Britt Vasarhelyi’s Message From Panama, I followed Pen into the dense Panamanian jungles. Britt’s vivid details made me a nervous wreck. Setting is a huge part of that series.
Stephen King also gets under my skin. His plots are so awesome I can’t help reading his books, but the man ruins my sleep. With King, I consider the setting secondary to plot and characters.
Mystery writers Elizabeth Peters and Tony Hillerman are two examples of authors whose work relies heavily on setting. Peters, a pseudonym for Elizabeth Mertz, wrote about archaeologist Amelia Peabody, and her digs in Egypt. Hillerman, through his protagonists Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, writes about Navajo country in the southwest United States.
Salem, MA is the setting for one of my manuscripts. The city is important to the plot, but with a few tweaks I could probably find another place for the story. However, those tweaks would make me unhappy. Growing up, Salem was the closest city to where I lived. A rare treat would be a visit to the amusement park at Salem Willows. In those days, we’d go by boat. I still enjoy visiting Salem, a city also renowned for its witch trials and haunted buildings. Since paranormal elements constantly turn up in my plots, the city of Salem was a natural choice for my story.
Waterfront locales inspire me, especially in the warm weather. Besides Salem, other places that show up in my stories include Marblehead, MA; Cape Cod, MA; and Newport, RI.
What about you? What do you consider to be the most important element in your work? Do you have a Hogwarts?