Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Should You Use a Real-Life Setting for Your Story?

Speculative authors don’t give a second thought to creating settings out of thin air. They create whole planets when their stories demand them. But even authors writing within the confines of the “real world” are sometimes confronted with the choice to use an existing setting or make one up. This setting can be something as relatively miniscule as a made-up restaurant within a real town, or it could be an entire city. But the question, of course, is how do you decide when a made-up setting would be preferable to a real-life setting? And if you do utilize a made-up setting, how do you pull it off convincingly?

Let’s consider an example. Pulitzer-winning author Edna Ferber’s final novel Ice Palace takes place in pre-statehood Alaska in the 1950s. The real-life Alaskan setting is vital to the story’s plot. The book couldn’t conceivably have taken place anywhere else, and it’s very obvious that Ferber did her research and layered her setting with a wealth of realistic details. However, within this real-life setting, she chose to use the made-up sub-setting of the supposedly prominent city of Baranof, which she created entirely out of thin air for her own purposes.

So why did she do this—and how did she pull it off? I suspect Ferber chose to create Baranof for the same reason I created the town of Hangtree in my historical western A Man Called Outlaw. Namely, she wanted the freedom to depart from the facts wherever it would benefit her story. Had she set the story in Juneau or Sitka, she would have been bound to historical fact. However, she obviously understood that for the make-believe setting to work, she had to make it just as convincing and realistic as any real-life town. She researched real Alaskan cities and composited them into her make-believe one to keep readers from ever having a reason to suspend their disbelief.
Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share