Some readers will breeze over setting descriptions, soaking them in subconsciously. Others will dwell on every word, researching your locations and fact checking your history. Either way, setting is vital – it paints a backdrop and adds spice to the story. Regardless of how detailed you are with setting description it’s important to get it right, and you’ll find that a little research can add credibility and even sub-plot that you might never have imagined otherwise.
Use Google Earth
Does your story take place in a mountain location or a busy city? Or maybe on a fictional planet? You’ll undoubtedly write about settings where you’ve never been, but you might spend some time there (or a place like it) using Google Earth.
You can use Google Earth’s Street View to zoom down into a location and take a 360-degree look around. Places where the Google team hasn’t yet recorded by car can usually be accessed by turning on the photos layers. Both are great to help add detail and pepper your story with descriptive observation.
If you’re looking for a location to fit the needs of a story, Google Earth is great for that, too. Zoom around until you find a place with the geography, climate or access that meets your story’s needs.
Even if you write about alien planets Google Earth can help. There are some pretty alien-looking places on earth (search for the Salar de Uyuni Desert or Molokini Crater). There’s also new places being found all the time, such as this new world found underground in Vietnam. You can use Google Earth’s Mars and Moon fly-overs to stimulate your imagination for alien terrain. You can also explore the universe by flying through using the Sky feature.
In The Second Tree, I needed a remote location in an exotic setting where a tribe of people could hide. I searched around Africa until I stumbled upon the Rwenzori Mountains – remote, exotic, with beautiful, alien-looking vegetation.
Someday I plan to visit, but I couldn’t afford it when writing my first book. When writing the sequel, Eden’s Revelation, I needed another remote mountain location near Central Asia where Chinese forces could wage war. Enter the Bogda Shan Mountain Range in XinJiang, China. Ever hear of it? Me either, until I found it on Google Earth. But it was perfect for my story, especially when I started researching its history and culture.
Research the History and Culture
“Truth is stranger than fiction” and “you can’t make this stuff up” are sayings that are all too true. We develop fairly narrow views of the world based on our own immediate environments. But lurking out there in the wide world are histories and cultures that border on the incomprehensible, at least compared to our own. These make for great story background and setting if you respect them and research them thoroughly.
Once you’ve found a setting (or in your journey to find one), spend the time to understand the people of the region, their history, beliefs and motivations. What caused the region to develop (or to remain undeveloped)? Are the people that live there native, or did they migrate there? Are there competing interests in the region, or is it generally homogeneous?
The intent isn’t to turn your story into a history lesson, but rather to sprinkle in elements of reality that make the writing seem more rooted and credible while immersing the reader more deeply. A reader’s interest might be piqued by a passage in which you mention a ritual or setting description, and they may wonder if it is truth or fiction. That might drive them to research the history or culture on their own, and in the end both you and the reader have learned something new. And if your story takes place on a remote planet, why not borrow a little history from Earth for those that live there?
My first book, The Second Tree, takes place largely in Uganda. I researched the history of the Bantu expansion and the subsequent competition between rival trade and missionary efforts in the region. As a result of exploring the history and culture, an entire sub-plot opened up to me that added a vital element to the story. The most-widely circulated paper in Uganda, New Vision, wrote a great review of The Second Tree, praising the book’s accurate depiction of the region and history.
Don’t be Afraid to Blow Stuff Up
Now that you have an interesting setting that meets your needs and you’ve researched the history of the region, there’s no reason you can’t have a little fun. That is as long as you respect the culture and you don’t violate the actual history. I’m not talking so much about historical fiction – I mean adding elements to the story that ring true in some way to the reader.
You may find an event relating to your setting’s culture or region that can be adapted nicely as a plausible backdrop. Obviously you shouldn’t just copy history, but using the essence of the event may tweak the reader’s memory. They might subconsciously recall the event or remember that something similar had occurred, adding an element of reality to the story for the reader.
You can also blow stuff up, even if it didn’t happen. If you decide to create an earth-shattering event in a well-known place, however, you might want to study how that society or culture has dealt with tragedy in the past and mimic the reactions in your story.
In Eden’s Revelation I wrote about a region and culture that was a hotbed of unrest. During my research, I found an historical event that I adapted for the book. An incident had occurred involving a migrant dock worker in Asia that sparked accusations of unfair work practices and oppression. Riots broke out in the worker’s home country that soon spread across the world, fueled by people of the same ethnicity. Personally I had never heard of the riots, and I’m pretty sure most of my readers haven’t, either. I didn’t reference it, but I did invent my own historical event about a group of mine workers of the same ethnicity that are involved in a mine incident in Uganda. Similar to actual history, my version resulted in riots in the workers’ homeland, but from there I let the back story take a life of its own.
No matter how familiar the reader is with the actual event my writing of a similar incident will sound plausible. It might strike a direct chord with those that recall the event. For those that are totally unfamiliar with it, it also works because it’s rooted in reality and sounds like something that could happen.
So don’t be afraid to create fiction in a historical setting just because you haven’t spent decades in the setting or immersed in the culture. Stretch your boundaries, learn something new, and teach your readers something, too. The best type of learning is done while having fun!