Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Off the Top of My Head: Settings- What Works for You?

I was chatting online with Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books last night, and she mentioned a book she's reading right now, a recent mainstream novel set on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, not far from where we both live. The setting in this book, a realistic, contemporary novel, is a fictional town modeled after the area and Dawn talked about how the fact that the setting was generic and made-up rather than specific and real was distracting her.

This conversation got me thinking about settings and how they contribute to the overall feel of a book. Dawn said, and I think I agree, that if the setting is a place I know, she would rather have it be specific- a specific real town, for example, and not a made-up composite. If a story is set in Massachusetts or New England or another place I know, it's easier for me to get into the story if it's a real place, because then I feel it's familiar and I can add my own knowledge of the place and my own feelings or memories or impressions to what the author gives me. I get immersed the story much faster. Writing about a real place sets a higher standard for verisimilitude; there's not as much wiggle room for the author to fudge details or adjust reality to suit the story. For example, I grew up around Salem, Massachusetts; part of the experience of reading Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader was enjoying the detail and the texture of her descriptions of Salem. And I would have been able to tell if she'd gotten something wrong.

If I didn't know Salem well, or if I were reading about a place I didn't know about at all, I wouldn't have access to this information and I wouldn't be able to bring my own emotional history with the place to the experience of reading it. I think that this emotional connection may be one reason I seldom connect with wholly made up worlds, like in science fiction or fantasy novels but I think a really good writer should be able to create a vivid enough world to forge that connection no matter whether the world is familiar, unknown or made up.

So if I don't know the setting at all- if a book is set in a place I've never been or isn't even real- then I have to rely on the author to make that connection for me. And I read a lot of books set all over the world. I just finished Eddie Signwriter, by South African novelist Adam Schwartzman, set mainly in Africa (although part of it is set in Paris, which I know a little). A while ago I read Rooftops of Tehran, by Mahbod Seraji, another place I've never been. And in both cases the authors evoked their settings beautifully so that even if I didn't know if they had all the details right (although I trust that they do) I was able to connect enough through the characters and their experiences, even if I didn't quite have that rich, I've-been-there experience with the place.

What do you think? Do you tend to read books set in familiar places? How do you feel about generic versus specific settings? Does the setting make any difference to you at all, or do you not read so much for setting?

23 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I read books set all over the place, but I agree that reading one set someplace familiar brings some sort of familiarity to the story that adds comfort for me.

logankstewart said...

I've not traveled much, so I typically depend on the author to give me the needed details for setting. However, I read a lot of fantasy, which tends to take place in made up worlds anyway, so I don't usually bother with setting. When I do read something set in our own world, I guess I'm so used to exotic worlds and lands that the setting typically doesn't bother me at all.

Interesting post today.

Blodeuedd said...

Since I love fantasy I guess I do not like to read books set in a familiar setting

Serena said...

I do have a fetish for all settings Massachusetts because I grew up there... but really I don't go looking for them...I think its just an added bonus.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I think we're on the same page, as the saying goes, with this one!

If I'm familiar with an area, I feel cheated if a true place name is used, but the setting the author creates doesn't reflect the true place. I'm not measuring curbstones and counting hedges in front of buildings to check for accuracy, but the tone and major landmarks should be real.

When an author creates a fictional town in an area I know, I'm distracted, "what town does she mean? Where is this supposed to be?" Unfortunately I often spend time tracking clues, which distracts from the pleasure of reading.

As for a fictional town in an area I *don't* know ... if it rings true (described with dimension, the area's personality), I accept it. I don't know what I don't know!

I'll admit I'm a high-maintenance reader when it comes to setting.

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

I always enjoy reading about places I know but I also enjoy reading about places I've never been.

I think sometimes creating a fictional place can help protect people in legal regards and also relationships. I don't know....made-up countries that are supposed to be real places kind of bother me.

LR said...

I guess I never really realized that I get more involved with books if I know the location, but I'm sure I probably do... it's easier for you to visualize things. :)

brichtabooks said...

I love reading books set in familiar places. The Time Travler's Wife, which is my favorite book of all time, was set in Chicago, right by where I live. It made the book really come alive to me since I had been to so many places that Henry and Clare went to. I also liked The Dive from Clausen's Pier, set in Madison, WI due to it's setting. If an author can pull it off, a fictional setting is okay, but real ones tend to stick with me more.

Diane said...

I love when authors write about real places I can relate to. Elinor Lipman, and Ann Hood are two authors who tend to do that as well as Ron McLarty. For me, it makes the story all the more enjoyable.

great discussion topic Marie.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love books set in familiar places. Suddenly there is a deeper connection and you feel like you have a secret entry into the world of the author.

Kitten said...

As long as the book is set in a realistic place, I can relate to it. I'm not a fan of science fiction or fantasy; these tend to be genres that are set in very futuristic places. I've just never been fond of them.

Fibro Witch said...

Depends on the book and the author. Anne McCaffrey draws her worlds so well that I feel as if they are real places.

Sara Harvey (one of my fave sf authors) has set a story in New York, and the city and it's places became an active character in the story.

On the other hand, Mary Janice Davidson has a series set in Boston, but she has yet to look at a map of the city. So it's set 'in' Boston, but she just throws out street names and non existent locations. The sloppy work on setting creeps up on the character and they become sloppy also.

I have a tendency to collect any book set in or about Boston, fiction or non fiction.

Florinda said...

I tend to connect in a particular way with books set in places I know, but then, like you and Dawn, I get particular about the details. I like to be able to recognize it. But even when the book is set somewhere unfamiliar, I like the author to make me see what it's like.

Settings can be a source of frustration for me when it comes to TV shows and movies, since so many take place in Los Angeles. When you live here, it's so easy to nitpick about how places that are nowhere near each other are made to look like they're practically next door!

JoAnn said...

I tend to read books with all kinds of settings, but there is definitely a special feeling when the setting is familiar. I love it when books introduce me to a place I know nothing about, too. Then I depend on the author to 'get it right'.

caite said...

oddly enough, few people are writing books set in South Jersey.

Which ever way the author goes there are issues. If it is set in a real place, he/she has to be very careful, or people that know the place will find mistakes. But yes, a made up place is sort of bizarre and annoying..
bottom line, I guess authors just have to be very careful checking their facts.

nomadreader said...

I agree that fictionalized settings (and people) often have me trying to figure out if the places and people are real, based on one or more people or completely made up. One of my favorite authors, Pearl Cleage, sets most of her books in the West End section of Atlanta. Her books are seemingly modern day, but the West End in her books is a far cry from the actual West End. If you didn't know, you wouldn't miss it, but knowing adds an extra layer of meaning.

Setting is quite important to me, and I once arranged my bookshelves my location the book is set in. I find myself craving certain cities, and I look for a book set there. Discovering new places through books is also amazing. In the end, setting is important, but it doesn't typically make a good book bad or a bad book good for me.

Ultimately, I trust the writer. Sometimes made up cities are more powerful and sometimes it doesn't work. It's all about the story and the writer figuring out the best way to tell it. Fascinating!

jewwishes said...

I read books that are set all over the world. I don't stick to familiar setting, however, if a book is set in a place I am familiar with, the details need to reflect that and be factual for me, and not be exaggerated or made up.

Zibilee said...

I am mostly a homebody, and haven't traveled all that extensively, so when an author embellishes facts about locations it often passes me by. If I were reading a book set in my hometown though, I think I would much prefer it if the information about the locale was distinct and correct. This is a good question and you have given me a lot to think about. I now really want to search out some books set in my own area!

Lenore said...

It totally depends on the reason I am reading the book. Sometimes I read a novel because of the setting, and in that case, I want it to be right.

Jeanne said...

I was just rereading some Thomas Hardy, and so my response to this question is colored by my enjoyment of such armchair traveling. I'm unlikely to ever go to Hardy's Wessex in real life. I think I often prefer to read descriptions of places I've never been. It's a bit distracting to read about places I have been, such as London, Washington D.C. and Newport, RI because then I start thinking about differences between how I saw the place and how it's being described in whatever I'm reading.

Like others here, I read a lot of fantasy and SF, so I'd have to say I prefer imaginary settings.

Dave said...

I enjoy books that transport me to another place, and I'm disappointed if they don't do a good job explaining local scenery, customs, etc. I also enjoy historical novels that are set in or connected to a place I know. As a native of Connecticut, and occasional visitor to Mark Twain's home in Hartford, I've always had a warm spot for him.

Rita said...

I don't live in Boston, NY or DC but have been there often enough that I'm familiar with them. I enjoy reading books set in those places as well as my own South Florida. I actually prefer settings in Boston as it's one of my most favorite places.

agoodstoppingpoint said...

I don't have a preference for books set in familiar places, but if they are, I expect them to at least get the 'feel' of the region / city right. For instance, Richard Russo's book Empire Falls is set in a fictional former mill town in Maine. I grew up in that sort of town and I thought Russo did a good job of capturing the essence of a small diminishing town.

I love reading books set in places I have never been. I especially like when thrillers and mysteries have unusual settings, such as the Twin Cities, Minnesota (P.J. Tracy novels) or National Parks (Nevada Barr) or a fictional world such as in Mieville's The City and The City.

- Christy