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Beginning with Setting

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Dec 16, 2016.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Good grief. I'm writing whole essays. I hope the Honorable Assembled have not lost patience with me.

    You might think for an alternate history tale, set squarely on Earth, would have no trouble with setting. Not so, not at all. If you were to decide to set your story in America, my first question would be Kansas or Brooklyn? 1780 or 1980? Among the wealthy or among the poor? And so on. Setting is not so easy. Shouldn't something around here be easy? :confused:

    Well, the decisions were somewhat easier, anyway, mainly because making a choice had some clear corollaries. I'll demonstrate.

    One meta goal for each of my Altearth tales is that the story must illuminate some part of the world not yet shown. I have a story with an ogre and a sprite, set off the coast of Brittany. I have one planned that goes from Sicily to the Rhineland and involves mostly humans. I have another human tale set in the Altearth equivalent of the 1950s. I have a story with dwarves and sprites that somehow also wound up in Brittany. So I'm looking for something new.

    I've been dodging the elves, sketching them from a distance, so I early on decided that while Falaise is human, she spends at least some time in the company of elves. That will force me to sketch in more specifics about elvish culture. Who knows, maybe the whole thing will be among them. So there's some social setting.

    I could set this in England, but I have other plans for there, involving dragons. I was looking for something less well-known. There was once a kingdom called Arles, which was roughly equivalent to the Duchy of Burgundy. Southeastern France. This is good territory for story telling, with diverse geography and some interesting linguistic possibilities. Now it's a matter of finding specific settings, where specific actions will take place.

    Here is where plot and character get entangled with setting. Right now I assume Falaise has been placed in some isolated place, either hidden away or she's studying with some elven master magicians. So, with the geographic parameters set, I can start researching some place in particular to set a tower or a college or a camp.

    Since it's the Kingdom of Arles, part of the story will take place there. More research. All this sort of research should be done prior to writing. I can "scout" other locations, too. The choices have impact. They determine, for example, how long it takes to get Falaise from Setting 1 to Setting 2. They even affect her clothing, what she eats, and so on. Not all those need to be researched beforehand.

    Finally, there's chronology. Exactly when do I set this? Now, the Kingdom of Arles lasted only a few generations, but one of the advantages of alternate history is I can change this. I make it last longer, start earlier, or even make it a duchy instead of a kingdom. I went looking for some time period not already staked out by other stories and came up with an arbitrary year that amused me: 2017AUC.

    Altearth marks years by the old Roman chronology. AUC=ab urbe condite, which means from the founding of the city. Meaning Rome. The traditional date for that is 753BC. So, subtracting 753 from 2017, I got 1264. Which was great! A time period I know well. Plus, it amuses me to choose a year in AUC that corresponds to the year in which--I am determined!--I will write this novel. 2017.

    How about you guys? How much of the setting do you decide on prior to writing? Is it as goofy and arbitrary as the above? Do you find that the choice of setting has repercussions for plot and character?
    Peat and Heliotrope like this.
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I find setting a great way to define the tone/mood, but also the theme.

    For example, when I knew I wanted my theme to be "dreams" and I knew I wanted to play with the idea of having people's "Dreams" stolen like treasure, but I wanted a real world setting, I brainstormed what that might look like. Well, war takes away people's dreams. It's pretty hard to focus on being an artist when your home is being bombed and your family is being killed. So I thought it might be intriguing to write the story in London during the Blitz, and deal with the aftermath of a single neighborhood.

    However, I knew I wanted the story to be more lighthearted in tone and more a comedy than a commentary on war, so I wanted a more modern day setting. I wrote a few drafts where the story took place in New York directly after 9/11. I even had my MC struggling with inner conflict about her best friend Mona, a Muslim girl who's family struggled against Taliban rule and immigrated from Afghanistan ten years earlier.

    However, it was still too heavy. So now my WIP is mostly centered around the New York Subway and the lives of the homeless who live there. Blackbeard, being a time traveling pirate living in the subway, is really a symbol of how these people who become 'invisible' to thousands of people every day may really have rich and fascinating histories that no one ever cares to learn about, and whose dreams have been stolen from them in a variety of ways.

    After that I started using the photography of Lee Jefferies as inspiration for my characters, and my MC herself has a dream of being a photographic journalist.

    Lee Jeffries

    *Note: Yes, again, my stories have a very long gestation period. All of this stuff is considered before I start drafting.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2016
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I usually have a few key elements about the world noted. I'll have a certain feel I want to achive, but otherwise it's pretty sparse at the beginning. Character and plot will dictate certain things which will change the setting which will change the plot and character. Rinse repeat.

    Not the most elegant thing, but I've tried writing detailed notes. Most of it never gets used because I think of better, more fitting, things on the fly.
    skip.knox likes this.
  4. Peat

    Peat Sage

    Setting is something that tends to be fairly sketchy in my mind until I've done the first draft. I do enough of it to tell the story, then work out what parts of it I've been touching most on the second go through.

    I'd say the big things I need to know before hand are

    1) Time period
    2) Culture
    3) A few quirks

    I'm a big fan of playing mish-mash with my cultures. The current fantasy WIP has a culture designed to be a mix of Imperial Rome, 15th century England and pre-Roman Celtica with a few mythological touches. I'm not quite sure how this all balances as I need to do the fine-tuning, but that was the mix I was playing with.

    Usually the mix suggests a few quirks. From the Celtic aspects I took a few recent historical elements for the setting; writing was only legalised in far living memory and the King's grandfather was the first to break matriarchal descent. That gives me a few tensions and lingering taboos, plus creates the image of a real living changing culture*. Religion is mainly on Roman cultic lines but with more Celtic inspired deities. And so on.

    I do often go heavy on creating a mythology simply because I love myth.

    *I have a deep irrational annoyance for all these fantasy societies that have stood in stasis for hundreds if not thousands of years.
    skip.knox likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    One advantage of working in Altearth is that none of the notes go to waste. I don't think I could face having to create entire worlds for every new story I wrote. It's plenty of work, thank you very much, to color in the details for a world that already exists.

    OTOH, here's a drawback with alternate history fantasy. Sure I have socio-political structures ready to go. The geography is fixed. I don't have to decide the climate, how many moons, etc.

    I do, however, have to find a place for all these new people. If I put elves in Scandia, what do I do with the Swedes? Dwarves in the Pyrenees are a natural, but are the Basque there as well? Or elves?

    Even more difficult are orcs or trolls. Put a troll kingdom in Hungary and it's sort of an insult to the Magyars. Do I let orcs conquer Constantinople? Do I really want that close a parallel to the Turks? And if I do that, how do I get orcs in Provence?

    There are ways to deal with all this. I bring it up just to illustrate the unexpected (for me) difficulties in this path. Setting has all sorts of complications.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I have the world boned-out, with varying degrees of flesh on them thar bones... plus, the beginning and ending of the world. So, when a story develops, it's necessary to figure out where it takes place, how and why, etc. All stories fit into the greater story of this particular world, and I can only hope to live long enough to get to the end of the world, LOL.

    So in a sense, if I go back far enough in the gestation period, it started with a story and then a world to fit the story.
  7. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I've been working on the details for a number of fictional worlds in a shared multiverse for over three decades, with the intent of setting stories in them. I have tons of notes about these worlds, some on paper, some on the computer. I have histories, seasons and weather, cultures and customs, religions, supernatural elements, geography (with maps), etc., etc. These worlds are like characters to me.

    In writing my WIP, there were aspects of the local setting that I further fleshed out, letting the needs of the story guide me in the task. So I began with setting, but I wasn't done with setting before I started writing the story.
  8. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

    Basque dwarves? I mean Toulouse-Lautrec was basically Basque, at least to the Parisians, and he was definitely a dwarf. ;)

    Now everyone can see the difficulties of writing short fiction to market standards...I mostly kept to writing humourous SF for market, but even then there's the "how much science do I put in this story" and what kind of "vibe" was I going for. My writing is all over the place genre-wise and generally once I've "created" the world for one thing I'm bored of it [there have been exceptions] and I go onto create the next world for the next story. And there in lies the problem, I've created the basics of enough worlds to work in for decades, yet once I've told the story that is "perfect" for the world, I don't know what else to do with it. [Except my centaurs and space dragons SF world. That one is fun.]

    More to your original point...I usually start with a blend of character and setting. What do I mean by that? If I have a sense of place [and it usually is just a sense of a setting, not Boston 1779 or something specific] that informs the kind of characters who can/would/do live and work and play there.

    For example, consider a swamp. If my character idea is "figure skater" we're immediately going to have problems there with the character not fitting in. Most swamps don't freeze over enough to allow skating. And if my story idea isn't Man v. Environment, then figure skater and swamp isn't going to work. So one or the other will have to shift.

    A character that would fit in the swamp environment would be someone like Marion "the Swamp" Fox, who used his environment for his purposes.

    So you can have the character working in tandem with the environment and telling the story that way, or the character at odds with their environment and having that be part of the story as well. I generally like going with character + setting --> working together because it makes things a bit easier in the long run [also man v nature is really out of favor at the mo].
  9. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour

    About your question, skip.knox: "Shouldn't something around here be easy?"

    I have to admit, it doesn't seem so. But as the old saying goes -- "If it were easy, everyone would be doing it."

    Be proud that you're one of the few who can.

    All my best to you and your future efforts.
    skip.knox likes this.
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    It's interesting how setting can constrain character, plot, and story, and how these can constrain setting.

    For my current WIP, I knew I didn't want to deal on the historical and geographical scale of empire (or a whole planet!), because it's fundamentally a tale about revenge. So it's personal. I also knew I wanted the character seeking revenge to be young and sloppy, obsessive, emotional and chaotic—picture that Leonardo di Caprio version of Romeo in Romeo + Juliet just after Mercutio is killed and he's going after Tybalt. (Although my character's emotional and chaotic nature is hidden beneath a seemingly calm and calculating exterior, at first...) So this nature also ties in with the up-close and personal feel; or, the focus "camera" is a close-up camera. I didn't need or want a sprawling continent and empire and long, deep history for the setting. (In the way that R&J only needs Verona.)

    I also already knew that this character would be a fish out of water, from a backwater region somewhat distant from his target's home city. (This is a recurrent theme for me. I have another world that is larger in scope, the scale of empire, and the MC in the primary story is from a backwater village in one of the regional power centers/kingdoms distant from the empire's center of power.) So a single city wouldn't work as a setting. I had to consider the kingdom and its relation to the rest of whatever exists outside that kingdom. (Incidentally, I'd already determined that the villain would be a prince of a kingdom, so I already knew I was dealing with a kingdom.)

    I wanted the setting to match the tone of sloppiness, chaos, and so forth of the general story. So I settled (! see below) on having a youngish kingdom that formed only 200 or so years before the start of the story from a collection of tribes, loosely related, that had previously controlled this stretch of geography for a very long time. The founder of the kingdom was a chieftain that brought the tribes together, mostly through war. Old tribal holdovers, like slightly different customs, feuds and a looooong memory, mean that not all is utopic throughout the kingdom.

    There were some outlying regions around the tribal lands, different peoples and cultures, that had already begun to form smallish kingdoms of their own. Ever since the founding of this kingdom, it has had conflicts with these other smaller kingdoms and has been expansionist in nature, although without quick successes, mostly due to distance and geography. One of those smaller kingdoms was only recently defeated so soundly in battle that it's become a tributary state to this kingdom—and that's where this revenge-seeker originates. (Backwater origin accomplished!) His motivation for revenge was an event that occurred during that conflict between his homeland and this larger kingdom. So establishing a setting for his original home was important for the story and plot.

    A large portion of the scenes in the book will be set in the capital city of this kingdom, but some will be set in stretches of wilderness between that capital city and the revenge-seeker's homeland, and a smaller number within areas of that revenger-seeker's homeland. But other important characters will originate from a few lands outside this kingdom, and forces outside the kingdom will play an important role for the setting and serve as minor catalysts for events in the story. So I needed to have some understanding of those other cultures and forces, although I only need to know the pertinent information that will have an effect on the story. I don't need as much depth for those areas as I need for this kingdom and particularly its capital city.

    But I need to backtrack for a funny story. In the very first stages, I didn't have a clear idea of the size and nature of this kingdom, nor how I'd work in the backwater origin of the revenge-seeker, nor even very much about the plot and story. I didn't have much more in mind than "Kingdom. Some backwater area. Young revenge-seeker. Villainous prince." So I decided to make a map. I used a random map generator and kept randomizing new maps until I found one I thought looked "cool," and then I started adding mountains, rivers...etc. The funny thing that happened was that I became so engrossed in making a "cool" map, that I ended up with a land and geography that greatly constrained what I could do. I had at one point considered a big, sprawling kingdom, with many largish kingdoms and lands outside it; but nope. The map I created didn't have room for all that. I was bummed. But I ran with it, and the arrangement of the smallish land area actually forced me into the bottleneck re: the age, origin, history etc., of the kingdom and other features I've outlined above.

    The only other major area I had to decide for this setting was the magic of the world. I'd already determined that I wanted a land that was rife with magic, so that nearly everyone had some access to magic or lived among those who did. Such ubiquity for magic is a serious problem when you begin to consider the political and economic and military structures and just general social fabric. But I've more or less worked it out and the ubiquity actually plays in to a major part of the story and character arcs.
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
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