Believable (not necessarily realistic) settings
As a one-time technical theatre major, I probably have a heightened sense of setting, but it is important to make your settings believable, whether you set your story in a contemporary city, a farm that’s nowhere in particular, or a star kingdom far, far away. So how do we as writers do that?
Two things to keep in mind: Wherever or whenever your story is set, (1) the place and time have to make sense to the reader; and (2) everything must remain consistent.
Even the most far-fetched science fiction setting has to make sense to the reader. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (Honor Harington: On Basilisk Station, Baen Publishing, 1993) is a great example of what it takes to get it right—and in a big way. The stories take place 1,800 years afterthe Diaspora of the human race into space. There are two main political entities: The Kingdom of Manticore and the Peoples Republic of Haven. These books take place light years from old Earth, but they make sense in every way to today’s reader, first because the two opposing political entities so closely match the free British Empire (Manticore) and communist USSR and China (Haven) that readers recognize the language, emotions, and behaviors connected to these two great cultures, and second, because Weber has created realistic interstellar space flight, with all the technical details and jargon needed to make it seem as though it could actually work.
Even stories set in the here and now, however, need these same rules. Whether your town or city is real or not, it has to make sense. Mary Beth Magee has written a series of stories that take place in the small fictional town of Cypress Point, Mississippi (BOTR Press, LLC. http://www.LOL4.net). Her town is as fictitious as the characters in her stories, but it is so much like a real southern Mississippi town, the reader is tempted to look at a highway map to see where it is.
However extreme your settings, you need to remain consistent. Nora Roberts’ book Northern Lights (Jove Books, 2004) is set in the fictitious village of Lunacy, Alaska. It is the story of a cop from Baltimore who is hired by the town as their new chief of police. What makes this story so effective is the setting, and it works, because Roberts is consistent in her storytelling. Nate arrives north of the Arctic Circle just after Christmas, and it is cold. Seriously cold. And it is dark, almost all the time. I’ve never been that far north, myself, but I know what it’s like, now, because I’ve read Northern Lights. Believe me, no one in the story ever forgets to put on their layers of outer wear before walking outside or forgets to plug in the heater on their car engine when it’s left for any length of time. Roberts’ consistency makes it completely real to the reader.
Fantasy has its own challenges in terms of setting, and like science fiction, it requires special attention to detail. Magic only works for readers if the rules stay the same throughout the story. Elves are not dwarfs and dwarfs are not gnomes, and they will all behave in certain ways. How, you ask? It depends upon you, the storyteller, of course! But you need to set up your rules about your various creatures—their physical, emotional, and magical strengths and weaknesses—early on, and be sure to stick with those rules as you write, or your readers will, at the very least, be left confused and, at the worst, put down your book without finishing it.
One tool many writers use to keep their story setting straight is a map, and though whether or not you decide to print your map for your readers is up to you, it is still an extremely useful tool for you as you write. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, and Elizabeth Moon—to name just a few—all provide maps for their readers, which help both the author and the reader clearly picture what’s going on where—and keeps characters from turning in a different direction every time they head to the same place.