I love reading stories where the setting is as richly described and well-developed as the characters. Whether it’s an imaginary magical world or a historical time period or a neighborhood in an ordinary city, as a reader, I crave detail. Like a powerful poem, I want the imagery of the world around the story to feel real and true and present.
As a writer, that’s a lot to live up to, especially when writing contemporary fiction, set in the real world. Starting my very first novel, years ago while living in Eugene, Oregon, I struggled to figure out where my main character should live. Write what you know, right? The thought of setting my stories somewhere I didn’t know — New York City, perhaps…isn’t that where all the *important* writers set their stories? — seemed absurd. Even today, with the technological ability to virtually walk through the streets of almost any city, writing a story where my main character lives in a place I haven’t been, a place I haven’t seen in all seasons, haven’t smelled the air and felt the chill of the night air and fought off the mosquitoes and memorized the graffiti…it seems impossible.
At the same time, even writing about the city I was actively living in seemed too dangerous, or maybe too presumptuous. Like, who am I to think I know this place? Even cities I’ve lived in for years are strangers to me outside of me — and my characters are surely living outside of me, the author, who lives a wholly different life in that setting from the one I’m writing.
With that first novel, I settled for leaving out a specific name for the city but basing it pretty much directly on the city I was living in. I’m pretty sure my main character lived in the same apartment as I did, to be honest. I did the same for my next book, except for one place where he actually visited a real club in Oregon. I went on little outings to immerse myself in the places I wanted to write about, sometimes taking photos or scribbling details into my brainstorming notebook, researching on the increasingly sophisticated and available internet, and basically trying my best to make my fictional-real places feel real-real.
In Kiss the Morning Star, the girls follow a road trip path through many real-life places. I’ve been to all of those places, but some of them only years before writing the book. I relied more heavily on photos and research trips and the fact that my characters were not experts on the setting, either. They were passing through. Not ideal to me, but in some ways, Anna and Kat brought their setting along with them in the confines of their car and their tent and their rucksacks and their road maps.
Something kind of cool happened with the writing of KtMS, though. Even though there were only brief mentions (two I think, by name anyway) of the northern Minnesota town where Anna leaves her father when the story begins, that town of Sterling Creek expanded in my imagination (and in pages and pages of prewriting that never made it into the book) and became a real sort of place that encompasses so many other stories and characters in my head. It’s based on and reminiscent of the cluster of small towns in northern Minnesota near the woods where I grew up, but at the same time, it isn’t limited by the real geography or architecture or people who actually live in any of the real towns. This is a freedom I needed, to be able to create my world from layers of reality sliding together into a new, fictional form.
So many features of Sterling Creek are now solid in my mind — Gordon High, where Cassandra’s English teacher makes her write poetry; the Joyful News Bible Church, where Cassandra is thrown together with Drew. I can see the red, rocky trails winding up Plath’s Lookout, where she searches for her brother, and I could draw you a map of the cul-de-sac behind the Sterling Creek Shopping Center that Kayla refers to as “God’s Armpit.” There’s an old mine pit-turned-swimming beach with a camp for young inventors and a ghost story that most of the locals still sort of believe, and a shady paved bicycle path that passes some marshy areas where you can hear the peepers making a racket in the spring.
With each book I’ve written since I finished KtMS, I’ve grown more familiar with Sterling Creek, its people and its places, exploring different families and the parts of this setting that are most special to them. Each story I write builds on this connection, this setting-character growing more and more developed in my mind. Even as some of my characters strike out for other locations, this little town and its surroundings form a part of their stories, their roots.
What settings — fictional and non — feel especially vivid and amazing to you as a reader? As a writer, do you write about real places? Places you’ve never been? Imaginary settings you make up from scratch? A mixture of all those things?