Please welcome Patty Jansen! (She's a rare creature - an Australian that I actually like!)
On unusual settings in novels
On unusual settings in novels
Cat is a New Zealand writer, and I am Australian. One of the things I get asked a bit is if Australian settings make frequent appearances in my work, and how I feel about including them.
When you're an aspiring non-US writer, and you write stories set in your country or city, you sometimes hear that you should blandify the locality details so that it's no longer clear where it is set. Really?
I've read published books where that has obviously been done. In one book which I shall not identify, what should have been an Australian farm setting was changed into a generic farm setting. Gum trees became trees, and kangaroos became rabbits, and the fierceness of the Australian climate became something non-specific, and very much in the background. At the same time, anything that could have identified the locality was taken out: names of towns, brands or institutions. It was a YA novel, and the main character went to school, but the description of the school system was so non-specific that it could have been anywhere in the world. As a result, I spent much of the novel being annoyed that I couldn't figure out where it was set.
I'm very much in the dark as to why a writer would do this sort of thing. A writer under the misguided opinion of fellow non-published writers, maybe, but who are these editors suggesting these sorts of changes? Do they really think that people (read US-readers) are stupid and cannot handle the fact that there are other places in the world than the one in which they live? Readers are not stupid. Don't do this to them.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl so much was its unequivocally Thai setting, even though it was set in a really weird future. Ditto with Juliette Marillier's Wildewood Dancing, which is a fantasy set in Transylvania, and where it becomes clear that the author has spent a good amount of time researching the locality. There are little details in both books, and other similar books, that make the setting come alive.
A similar situation applies to novels with made-up settings. In order to bring the setting alive, you need to be specific about it. You need to know what the place looks like, what the climate is like, what some of the more prominent crops, plants and wildlife are called, what they're used for, or what the significance of them is, for example holy cows or other holy or dirty animals. It pays to know a bit about building style if you're writing about a city, or about crop rotations if you're writing about an agricultural society. The more specific, the better.
Setting is just another type of character that needs depth and personality. A book is never just about the plot or the characters. Setting adds to the book and can make the difference between a book that's OK and one that's great.
Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. She publishes in both traditional and indie venues. Her story This Peaceful State of War placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. Her story Survival in Shades of Orange will appear in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher's Web (soft SF http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004YDN934 ), which is a novel in which setting plays an important role.
Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at: http://pattyjansen.com/