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?