Writing Hack: How to Set Your Novel in a Place You've Never Been
Real or fictional? North or south? Small town or big city? America or abroad? Here are some questions to consider when choosing a setting for your novel.
What is the tone/atmosphere of your novel?
Have you ever noticed that the tone of the book you're reading or the movie you're watching is reflected in the setting? For example, Forks, Washington--a small, rainy town--is just as dismal as Stephanie Meyers' cast of characters in Twilight (at least in the movie version).
In contrast, a lot of rom-coms or light-hearted films take place in sunny locals, especially in the summer. There's an evident vibrancy in movies such as To All The Boys I've Loved Before. Details like Lara Jean's outfits, the soda shop, and the aqua-colored bathroom stalls set a far different tone than the muted Twilight.
Does this mean all rom-coms need warm and sunny locals, and all dramas need gloomy settings? No, of course not (look at Hallmark Christmas movies, for example, that mostly take place in colder, snowy regions). But it does help set the mood. Regardless, it's something to keep in mind as you're considering a setting.
Should I choose a real place, even though I've never been there?
Okay. So you know exactly the kind of vibe you want for your book. You think you may know where you want to set it, too. Except there's one problem: you've never been there.
This is what I ran into when I began drafting my second WIP (work in progress). I knew in my soul that my protagonists were two kids from Texas. Maybe I loved Friday Night Lights a little too much in high school, but there was something about that place and the people that encouraged ideas to keep knocking on the doors of my imagination. I had to be a part of it.
Even though I've never been to Texas, I have a working knowledge of what it's like thanks to Friday Night Lights. I also know quite a few people from Texas. What have I learned? If you're from Texas, you want everyone to know it. It's a way of life. It's its own world. It breeds a unique kind of American that's distinguishable to people from the other forty-nine states.
How far will research get me if I choose a real setting I've never been to?
Research won't answer all your questions. Inevitably, you're going to miss details about dialect, dress, landmarks, and practically anything else. There are some things you can't know about your setting unless you're a local.
To go easy on myself, I chose to set my first WIP in my hometown, Rochester, NY. Originally, I wanted to set it in Philadelphia, but at the time, I'd never been. Too intimidated (and perhaps too impatient) to set my novel someplace I've never been, I settled for someplace familiar. Someplace I knew the roads and the weather patterns and the people and that cute, Western New York accent (sarcasm intended. Just kidding. I love my accent).
Want to know the trick to setting your book someplace you've never been? Set the book in a general region but fictionalize your town. This way, you'll prevent angry locals from coming after you. Your town, your rules. Hawkins, Indiana (from Stranger Things) doesn't exist, but the Duffer Brothers do such a great job of world-building that you still get a sense of what it's like to live there.
Central Perk, the coffee shop in Friends, is not a real coffee shop in New York City. But I imagine it still captures the vibes of what a typical coffee shop in 1990s New York was like.
I'm following this hack for my second WIP; it may take place in Texas, but I created a fictional town that feels like Texas, but distinctly my own, as well. Even Dillion, the town in Friday Night Lights, is fictional, but it hardly feels like it.
Research, Research, Research
No matter how specific you chose to make your setting, you can't escape research--but why would you want to? Details will make your writing come alive (if you don't like researching and learning about different places, you probably shouldn't be a writer). I even had to do research for the book set in my own hometown. If I can't get those details right, that'll be pretty bad--not to mention embarrassing.
Personally, I don't like it when books don't specify where they take place. It feels disorienting not to know if I'm in New England, the Midwest, or the UK for all I know. Isn't it more exciting to pull your readers down a rabbit hole and into the world you've painted for them?
Resources for Research
Where do I start? you may ask. Here are some websites I use when I'm researching locations.
Google maps: How far does it take your protagonist to get from school to home? How long is the commute to work? What streets are they turning onto? What buildings or landmarks are they passing on the way?
Zillow.com: How much does it cost to live here? What do the houses look like here? How old is your protagonist's house? Neighborhood? What do the inside of these houses look like in said neighborhood?
Niche.com: How diverse is this town? Do most people rent or own their houses? Does this location feel urban or suburban? How many people live here?
Youtube: When you think you're about ready to settle into your little town or big city, do a quick youtube search. You'll find first-hand experiences from locals who vlog about it or tourists who visit.
Ask the locals: No one knows it like they do. They'll provide you will the tiniest possible details that no one else could possibly know from research. Also, you don't want to make locals mad for getting details wrong when the book comes out. Creative/fiction license will only take you so far.
Take a road trip: There's no better excuse to take a few days off from school or work and venture into your setting for some up-close observation!
I guess this means I'm going to Texas.