The Devil’s in the Details: Location, location, location
Last time on “The Devil’s in the Details,” I discussed the importance of a character’s wardrobe. This series is where I’ll share with you all of the small things I think you need to get right in your manuscript. They may seem minor, but they could also mean the difference between readers swooning over your work, or clicking through to the next.
My focus this time is location! Unless you are an existentialist or a minimalist, chances are your story is set in a geographic location. Whether it’s Nowheresville, New Jersey (I’m allowed to use that as an example, I’m from Jersey) or the Kingdom of Nerd, it’s up to you to describe that place to the reader. To my way of thinking, there are a number of ways you could do this, but let’s boil it down to two. The setting of your story is either a character in your book or it isn’t.
Let’s attack the first option. There are a number of books out there in which the place the book takes place is so important to the story that it feels like another character. If it’s done right, books that are written this way should feel like they couldn’t have any other setting than the one they’ve got. To take an example from TV, Sex and the City comes to mind. New York City is definitely a character, and the show just wouldn’t be the same if it were set in say, Kansas City. (No disrespect, Kansas City!)
What I love about making the location a character is that it can make a reader really feel like they’ve visited another place. They’ve tasted the coffee at the local café, they’ve taken a walk through the scenic park, and they’ve watched two characters fall madly in love in the bleachers at the homecoming game. A reader should be able to describe the place just as vividly as the plot when they’re done reading. And they should feel strongly about that place.
In my humble opinion, in a good romance you probably don’t need to worry as much about the setting being as important as the main characters. The romance is what everyone’s after! But if your romance is also a fantasy or a sci-fi thriller or set in the 16th century, you should probably give the place some weight. It will help the reader to more easily understand the world you’re building for them.
So if you go this route, make sure you’ve got your details straight. It would be terrible to go to all the trouble of describing every single street your character walks down, only to mix them up and confuse your reader. And if you’re basing it on a real town or city, do your research! For example, apparently there are no basements in Arizona. And in New Jersey, we don’t pump our own gas. Trust me, there are always people out there who will notice mistakes like that—and they won’t be afraid to point them out! Might I suggest a spreadsheet to keep track of everything? No, just me? That’s fine. Maybe option two would suit you better!
Like I said earlier, a lot of romances don’t need setting to be high up on the list. But it still matters. People don’t fall in love in a vacuum! (Or do they? That might make a cool story…) If you’ve painstakingly picked out the vintage penny loafers your heroine is wearing to the senior dance, you should probably also tell us a little bit about her surroundings. In the same way that it’s shaped who you are as a person, where someone lives has a great effect on their personality and their life in general. The setting can serve as a wonderful compliment or foil to the plot of the story. Is the main character depressed? Her surroundings could either reflect that inner struggle, say, if she lives in that town in Alaska that gets no daylight for a whole month. Or, she could be at odds with her hometown of Miami, which is always aggressively sunny and filled with bikini babes. In both cases, I don’t need to know the exact amount of gum on the sidewalk, but giving me enough information about the setting will help me to see through the character’s eyes and is another useful way to get insight into her state of mind.
If all else fails, maybe you should take a vacation to Hawaii. You know, for research. Good luck!