Thursday, April 4, 2013

Creating Fictional Settings

I just want to start out by saying how much I've enjoyed reading each of the Alley Cats' contributions to this setting series. It's always so fun to me to see how God has equipped each of the Cats and our readers with distinct writing voices, and I hope you're enjoying the series as much as I am. Today I want to talk about fictional versus real settings, and what a fictional setting can bring to your work.

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For my last manuscript, I knew what kind of tone I wanted for the story, and I knew I wanted a small town, southern setting. I began by looking at towns in Alabama but just wasn't coming up with anything. That's when I decided to ask my agent about using a fictional setting, and the idea for Peachfield, Georgia was born.

The following are some things to keep in mind when creating a fictional setting:

  • Link your fictional setting to a real setting. Think about Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls. We all want to go there, don't we? Even though Stars Hollow doesn't actually exist, the show consistently references other places that do, like New York and Harvard. We even have a pretty firm geographical location for Stars Hollow in its relation to Hartford. Because we have these anchors in our mind, Stars Hollow becomes very believable as a real town. When writing my story in Peachfield, I set the town south of Savannah so I could make use of all that comes to min when people consider the charm of that historical city.
  • Offer something with your fictional setting that a real setting does not. Whether it's a cozy small town or a bustling urban environment, crazy characters or unique businesses, your setting must bring something to the table that is distinct and set apart from real settings. Otherwise, readers are going to wonder why you didn't just set your book in the place the story reminds them of. It would be hard, for instance, to write about a fictional version of New York City, because readers are going to struggle to buy into that. But a posh neighborhood an hour away? Now that's something we can visualize, and you can still make use of the opportunities NYC brings.

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  • Believability. Don't mistake creative freedom for a dismissal of reality. Your setting still needs to be believable and easy for readers to imagine.
  • Voice. Fictional settings can be a great opportunity to really showcase your voice and tweak it according to your whims. I, for instance, wanted a traditional, cozy southern setting without deer hunting and beer drinking. So I made one up. You can do the same. Use a fictional setting as your opportunity to tailor the town to your needs.
  • Use your fictional setting as a backdrop for character development. The setting shouldn't just be a place where characters live and interact. Your setting should interact back with them. Be intentional about where you put your characters, because it will shape the tone and feel of your story. Also, consider unexpected settings. Put your characters in a place that makes them nervous, and see what happens. Think Richard Gere in Runaway Bride or Reese Witherspoon when she first comes home in Sweet Home Alabama.
  • Make use of Pinterest. I have an entire board on Pinterest dedicated to small town book inspiration. You can see it here. I use these images to get a sense of what life looks like in Peachfield. The neat thing about Pinterest is that you can find and use a bunch of different images as the starting point for your setting, then adapt them to the needs of your characters and story. I even like looking at decorating ideas and wedding dresses my characters might be interested in. The images throughout this blog are all photos I pinned to my Peachfield inspiration board.
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Remember that a fictional setting provides you with the unique opportunity to step outside the boundaries of what a town really looks like, and to create a space that is uniquely written for your characters. Make use of that in all its opportunity, and be intentional about matching that setting to the needs of your plot and character arcs.

I couldn't end the blog today without giving you a couple examples from Peachfield. Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Rain falls harder in Georgia when it's got to keep pace with tears.
Caroline Bailey watched through the window the day her daddy left until her momma made her leave. Thinking, hoping every whistle of the wind was his car turning down their street. 
Momma said Caroline had to get ready for the wedding. Had to put her dress on and fix her hair and at least pretend to be happy. So Caroline Bailey did. Pretend, that is.
Until she saw the soft glow of lantern lights and firefly wings, and the smell of honeysuckle caught on the breeze.  And for the first time all day, she felt like she could breathe.
She never looked through that window again.

The next section is written in the hero's POV just after he meets the heroine:

Caroline turned on her white canvas shoes. Overhead, long rows of ancient oak trees reached their strong jade arms to provide a covering fit for an angel.
Sunlight filtered through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, creating a glow around Caroline that transferred the moment into a memory.
Braham had the strangest feeling he’d always remember his first date with Caroline. 

Have you ever written a fictional setting? Did you enjoy it? What are some examples from books, TV, and movies, of fictional settings that work well in your opinion?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Ooooo, I love how the sunlight filtered through the moss. Great job, Ashley!

And may I just say that Pinterest is such a great tool for soooo many things! You can make it what you want it to be. Yes, it is addictive, but the resources are amazing!

Ashley Clark said...

I agree, Sherrinda! So much inspiration there, and it really helps you to visualize setting and characters!

Pepper said...

I just wrote a long comment and it disappeared.
Our 'make believe' real settings become their own characters in the books.
And small towns? BIG FAN!
I like having crazy locals and a cute restaurant or bookshop in each town. Daphne's Mug Shot is one of those 'sweet' restaurants I have in my make believe town of Ransom, VA in the Blue Ridge Mountains!
I'm pretty sure I have a new 'business' coming to town in book #3, so we'll see how the competition works when old meets new.
Love ya!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Loved your post, Ashley! And your Pinterest board. Great photos! I've used Pinterest to capture some inspiration for stories, too!

Love small town settings - especially fictional ones.


Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Great post Ash! I haven't yet dabbled with a fictional setting but my next series that toys with the concepts of luck vs. destiny take place in a fictional town I've dubbed Clover Falls. :) I will definitely be referencing this post when I kick that off. Loved reading about Peachfield at the end, too!

Anonymous said...

Ashley, I loved this. And your pics on Pinterest. And your descriptions. All beautiful. I'm still learning the fine art of having setting interact with my characters. :)

I haven't written a fictional setting yet, but one that comes to mind is the Hunger Games settings. Those are vivid in my mind, and they definitely interact with the characters. Not my favorite set of books, but Suzanne Collins did a lot of amazing things in her trilogy. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Pepper, what's especially funny about your comment is that I accidentally deleted both my personal blog AND this WA post yesterday and had to rewrite them both!

Love your idea of a new town business spicing things up and creating conflict! Aren't small towns just the best? :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Sue! Isn't Pinterest so fun? When I first got it, I spent hours upon hours looking through ideas but have since learned to curb my Pinterest addiction and have gotten better about using it mostly for DIY craft ideas and story inspiration. It's so much fun seeing what other people pin and getting inspiration from them!

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Amy! I love your idea to name the town Clover Falls! Very clever! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Jeanne! I think you hit the nail on the head-- when used at their best, sometimes fictional settings can actually seem more vivid and real than their real-life counterparts. Thanks for sharing!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love Peachfield - the name, the concept, everything! And how cute is that little old bookstore in your first picture?!! I want to go there!

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Ashley! I love your fictional setting! Feels like home.:)

Ashley Clark said...

Ha! Thanks Karen! I want to go there too! :)

Ang, you are so sweet! I am so thankful to have you! :)

Ashley Lynch-Harris said...

What a great post! I am pursuing a writing career, and I love the ideas you've mentioned. Thanks for sharing. I just signed up to follow this blog, and I look forward to reading more. God bless!- Ashley