1. Greenthecolour
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    Greenthecolour New Member

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    Do the details of where and when a novel is set matter?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Greenthecolour, Sep 4, 2011.

    I have a germ of an idea for a story I'd like to write, and I would like to set it in a fictional city with a vaguely medieval feel.

    What I wanted to check was whether a reader would find a story unsatisfying/unrealistic if there is no explanation of exactly when or where it is set. The reason I'm thinking about this is that I'm not too keen on carrying out research into a particular era but at the same time I'd hate to write something full of factual errors, so I'd really rather just leave the details out and get on with the story. I think one answer would be to create another world to set the story in, like Discworld (which has a similar historic feel to my idea), but as my story isn't fantasy-like in any other way this doesn't seem quite right.

    Also, I suppose I could just get on and write it and see for myself if it seems weird without any geographical or historical context, but if its clear to everyone else that it would be weird then I might as well find out from the start!

    Anyway, sorry for the long-windedness of this, I'd be grateful for any advice!
     
  2. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    I mostly matters in the sense that it makes it easier for you to do research and know your way around the setting. You can pretty much just go for a vague anachronistic feel instead, though. That might very well make for an interesting style.

    Mind, that doesn't mean you'll be able to dodge all the research - the reason we do research isn't to fill our stories with details but rather the make our stories feel realistic. You still need to establish the technological and social standards of this setting, which is where having a time and place to go by comes in handy. If you're not careful about that sort of stuff the setting will be a lot harder to believe in because readers can often tell when something doesn't make sense.

    What I'm trying to say is, not defining the time and place of your setting might actually lead to more planning and research, if you still want to do a good job. So, be careful you don't shoot yourself in the foot with this approach.
     
  3. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    I think it largely depends on the story. If its a fantasy then I think you can get away with practically anything in terms of time and place. All your world has to be is realistic and self consistent. If on the other hand its pure urban stuff, say detective or thriller etc, then probably you need to locate it in a real time and place. If that's the case then your world has to fit with the locale etc, and if you want to change things, not jar them too much.

    Cheers.
     
  4. Greenthecolour
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    Greenthecolour New Member

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    Thanks for your advice, I can definitely see what you mean about the purpose of research being to make a story realistic. I wonder then if I could choose an era/location for my story and base research on that, but not actually mention the date/place in the story? This way I can hopefully create a strong, consistent setting, but avoid potentially putting people off if I take few small liberties to suit the story and city I'm thinking up.

    The concern I have stems from a book I read recently which was set in the Tudor period and featured some well-known figures from that time. There were some inaccuracies that were obvious even to me (I'm no Tudor expert!) and they really jarred and affected my enjoyment of the book.

    Many thanks again!
     
  5. Greenthecolour
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    Greenthecolour New Member

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    Double post, sorry
     
  6. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    Yeah, but that's the trick, isn't it? Realism and consistency is a result of research and planning. You can only get away with as much as you are willing to put effort into.
     
  7. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    Oh, you can still be vague about the time and place of the setting. It's perfectly possible to create a setting by using different times and places as reference; you just have to make sure those references do not contradict each other.

    Here's an example: I'm leading an online RPG on a different forum, and I had a pretty specific idea of how the setting would work. What I wanted was basically an distinctly Asian culture in a European climate, where the general technology level is roughy Renaissance, except military technology is still late medieval because gunpowder burn slower in this world, so firearms could never render body armor obselete.

    I basically find myself constantly asking what you are actually likely to find in this world, based both on what feels right and what I have already established. They have clockwork technology, so they also have for example music boxes. Actual clockwork clocks are rare and expensive, though, so I had to check up what people used before them. (Turns out its water clocks or incense clocks.) Do they have indoor plumbing? I think the strangest thing was when I had to check if it was possible for them to have an equivalent of Worcestershire sauce. (Turns out they do! Goes back to the Roman Empire times, even.)

    Basically, that's what research is all about - making all the pieces fit. Not having a set time and place does give you a lot more freedom, but freedom comes with a certain responcibility. I'm sure you can pull this off, I just felt I should warn you that if you just want to avoid research, you may be in for a disappointment. :p
     
  8. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Realistic is different than Realism. Realism is a type of fiction that attempts to accurately recount our real world. Realistic isn't bound by Realism (though Realism is bound by realistic). If you want a realistic, but not Realism world, then you simply need to focus on making it feel realistic to the character, not the reader. Harry Potter doesn't feel like a real world because we can relate to the magic and mystery as readers, but because Harry Potter relates to it as if it's not a setting, but, of course, just his real world.

    Having a good idea of what your world is and what the rules are will help, of course, but you don't need a detailed textbook-like history written up. In fact, that can be somewhat limiting and boring, and leaving a bit of flexibility to invent as you go can make things more interesting. The trick is in revision (not pre-planning) to make sure you're checking for consistency and that the rules and laws of the world all make sense on a tangible level, and also that the world feels real and natural to the character at all times.

    Also meaning, if you're writing through the perspective of a character who has lived and breathed in this world for his whole life, then he shouldn't seem surprised by everything; this is a trick hack writers use to describe the world in exposition, instead of action. Just like, a character raised in New York, probably wouldn't marvel at the Subway and describe it in detail as if seeing it for the first time if he grew up around it.

    Build your story through action and context of what it means to the character, not what it means to the reader. Through that contextual action, we'll understand the world. And, more importantly, help also understand the character.

    Imagine a story about a place called Earth that none of us have ever been to before (we're all aliens). Instead of a page of exposition about the dangers of this strange creature called a snake, we simply see it through the characters eyes and understand what it means by the character's reactions. It could be positive, the character knowing the snake isn't poisonous and marveling at how sleekly it slides through grass. Or it could be negative, the character knowing/suspecting it is poisonous and freezing, afraid of being bitten. Either way, in this interaction, we learn everything we need to know about the world in that moment (the in that moment being key, as too many writers try to teach the reader everything about the world, when only what's relevant to that moment is really important).
     
  9. Greenthecolour
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    Greenthecolour New Member

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    Wow thanks to both of you, you've given this newbie some excellent food for thought here :D Really looking forward to getting on with my story now!
     
  10. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's important to give your readers some indication of where the story is set - fictional or reality doesn't matter as long as you're consistent. I'm reading two novels at the moment (both set in Tokyo, Japan) and both authors have managed to portray the setting realistically right from the beginning.

    To be honest, I'm incredibly lazy when it comes to settings - yet I've received good feedback. I use places I've been to and set my novels in the present day. Eg: I lived in Glasgow, Scotland Aug 2010~Mar 2011 so I used the setting in a novel. The novel itself was set Sep~Dec 2010 so I mentioned popular songs, referenced sports events (I lived near a stadium) as well as mentioning the Cholera outbreak in Haiti and the death of Soviet politician Gennady Yanayev between fictional media stories. :)
     
  11. Hawwyboo
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    You could say it is set in a certain region of the world while giving the more specific setting a fictional name. Most people aren't going to mind too much if they can't find the story's setting on a map of the region, especially if they know it is fictional.

    If the setting is just vaguely medieval European, I'd suggest basing the general 'feel' of the setting on Germany or Italy rather than, say, England or France, as Germany and Italy were divided into lots of mini-states (strictly speaking most of them were part of the Holy Roman Empire, but they were still socially and culturally diverse) so the reader is less likely to note anything that absolutely would not be there in any of the historical states in which the story could be set; you could go so far as to create a fictional statelet with a fictional monarch and such, seeing as most of the German and Italian states at the time are now pretty obscure anyway. Just so long as this fictional state's interactions with its historical neighbours (which don't need to be named) don't raise the question of why it hasn't made it into the history books.
     

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