Monday, February 23, 2015

How To Build A Rich Setting For A Contemporary Story

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Maybe, like I once did, you think of world building as being something only for fantasy or sci-fi writers. While the setting of a contemporary story may not require you to draw elaborate maps or create binders to keep track of it all, it's still a vital part of making your story believable.

After all, can you imagine Gilmore Girls with no Stars Hollow? Veronica Mars with no Neptune? Gossip Girl would be wildly different without it's NYC backdrop, as would The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. 



I think the first question to ask yourself when figuring out your contemporary novel is if  you should use a real place or make one up. This depends on the type of story you're telling.

If you use a real place, you better be sure you're getting your details right. Anticipate spending a lot of time on Google's street view and posting questions to Facebook like, "Anyone here live in Kauai who can answer a few questions for me?"

There are several big advantages to making up a place. One is that you're not going to get any town details wrong, because you're creating them . Another is that you're not going to offend any locals if you invent not-so-nice details about the town, like in Veronica Mars

Making up your own town, however, doesn't mean it's impossible to make a mistake. Once in an episode of Smallville, they showed a closeup of a Kansas license plate on the front of a parking car. Apparently nobody on their staff knew that we don't have license plates on the front of our cars in Kansas. 

You'll still want to do your research on the region, and I would suggest picking a town you can use as a pattern for your invented location. 

Also, if you're setting your story in a large city, I think going with a real one is less distracting. Metropolis is fine for Superman, but it would be distracting in a contemporary romance.

How should you pick where the story takes place?

Sometimes the story dictates it. Gone with the Wind (which, okay, wasn't exactly a contemporary in its day, but I think you'll see the point) mandates that the story take place on a southern plantation. A story about a girl trying to make it on Broadway will need to take place in New York City, same as a story about a man trying to make a living as a cowboy won't take place in NYC.

But sometimes the story doesn't suggest an obvious location. Jodi Picoult's books all (or all the ones I've read, at least) take place in the northeast, but they could have easily been set elsewhere if she'd decided to move them. Same with Stephen King. A ton of his books take place in Maine because that's where he lives. 

I chose to set the Skylar books in Kansas City because I lived in Orlando at the time and felt desperately homesick. If the story doesn't imply a location, feel free to set it wherever your writer's heart desires.

How do you make a place come alive on the page?

Now we get to the fun stuff, where you engage the senses and the emotions of your character to make the setting feel alive for your reader.

The emotion: I think this is perhaps the biggest part of "selling" your contemporary setting to a reader. Few people, if any, are indifferent about the place they live. How does your character feel about her city? Her neighborhood? Her school? Her place of work? Would she live somewhere else if she could? What does she love about this place? What would she change?

Those are questions that you could probably answer about where you live with very little thought, and you should know how your character feels too.

The people: What kind of people inhabit this place? In Veronica Mars, people tend to either be haves or have nots. In Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, the other characters are mostly all spies or former spies. Having some common themes among the people as well as diversity will help sell the world to your reader.

The places: When you're away from home, what are the places you miss? When we lived in Orlando, there were times I would lay awake thinking about Sheridan's Frozen Custard or Jack Stack Barbecue. I wanted to be at the Plaza at Christmas time and go to baseball games at Kauffman stadium. What places are close to your character's heart?

The smells: Napa Valley smells very different than Dodge City, Kansas. Boston doesn't smell like Miami Beach. Smell and taste are two of the hardest senses to work into my writing, but they provide a great texture to the story.

The weather: I almost always forget weather until I'm in the edits stage, when I realize things like, "This takes place in downtown Chicago, and I haven't mentioned so much as a light breeze..." Weather Underground is a great place to learn about weather patterns in locations.

The heart: What kinds of issues matter to the characters in this location? The characters of Stars Hollow (Gilmore Girls) were always having town meetings and working to protect their small community. Characters who live in a bigger city might not have those kinds of concerns. Residents in states like Arizona or New Mexico are likely to care more about border issues than those who live in Virginia. Those on the gulf coast fear hurricane season while Midwesterners fear tornado season.

One last note about contemporary settings...

It can be easy to assume your readers know what you're talking about. After all, you don't need to explain what houses look like or what kind of vehicles people drive, unlike in an otherworlds story. But don't forget that readers will still experience your character's world through the tangible details that you provide them. The morning fog. The cry of cicadas. The smell of neighbors grilling. Making the setting vibrant will make it a place your reader longs to escape to.

Contemporaries are my first love If you've read a contemporary novel that you love and that you feel did a good job with setting, mention it in the comments! 

30 comments:

  1. I write contemporary fantasy, so there is some "normal Earth" in it. In the past, you've mentioned it's also important to think of what setting would make the main character most uncomfortable (like a girl trying to stand out would live in a big city, a girl with an embarrassing family would live in a small town). I did that in my contemp fantasy and it's been a big help with conflict and my character. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. I forgot to mention that in this post! I'm glad to hear that helped you, Linea :)

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  2. I'm currently editing my contemporary fantasy. It's basically set in my hometown- if I wanted to, I could (and possibly should) map out my main character's jogging route and similar stuff. As I edit, I'll definitely have to keep your tips in mind so that my familiarity with my location doesn't make me gloss over details that make it real for others.

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    1. That's one of the hardest things with a contemporary setting, I think. Just being mindful of it makes a difference, though :)

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  3. What perfect timing! :) I'm actually in the middle of planning a new YA contemporary that takes place in a fictional small town, much like Stars Hollow. It's pretty easy to create so far, because I'm basing the town off of the things I like best in my own small town. Another thing that helps me create a setting is Pinterest. The imagery you can find there is absolutely amazing.

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  4. The timing on this post was absolutely perfect. I'm planning a contemporary currently, and I was going to set it in a fairly well known town/city that I've been to a lot and that isn't too far from where I live. I was wondering if I needed to get on Google maps and find an actual neighborhood that my MC lives in, or if it was okay to make one up or just not specify in the book. Also, I was wondering about making up places or groups. For example, if I put in a school or a church or an organization in this city that was made up, would that be okay, even if there was something like it that actually did exist in real life? Thank you!

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    1. Great question. I have made up schools or churches mostly so that I don't offend anybody. Perfectly acceptable. I think I would recommend a real neighborhood, however. Or at least a real street that your character can live off of to help it feel real to people who know the area. That's just a gut thing, though. Not a rule :)

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    2. Good to know. Thank you so much!

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  5. I love working through modern fantasy, and some of the worlds people create using contemporary settings makes me a little bit jealous. It always seems so easy to start. Then I get into the details of what contemporary actually entails and things get sticky. I'd rather use a real world than have to make one up. Thank you for this wonderful post!

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  6. My favorite contemporary novel is There You'll Find Me-Jenny B. Jones. The setting is very rich, set in a cozy village in Ireland, it makes you want to "blues scadoo" into the book and take it all in. Thanks for this post! I need to work on this for sure... I have a quick question, what is exactly the definition of a contemporary novel? I always thought that contemporary was in a real world stance, but after reading this I'm not really sure!

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    1. Jenny's books are lovely. That's a great choice!

      And here's a post I wrote answering that question: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/07/genre-questions-what-is-contemporary.html

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  7. I literally gasped when I saw the title of this post because I'm a contemporary fiction writer, but world-building has always been a favorite element of writing for me. So I created my own town. :D Thank you for approaching this topic from a contemporary fiction viewpoint! This post has given me a guideline to make sure I incorporate these traits into my stories.

    Reading over some other comments, though, I noticed several of you write "contemporary fantasy," or "modern fantasy," and I'm really curious as to what that is. Is it similar to a dystopian novel, such as Divergent? Thanks!

    ~Whitney

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    1. I'm glad the timing worked out so well, Whitney!

      Dystopians are usually classified as science fiction. I think contemporary fantasy is usually "worlds within our worlds" type stuff. Like Harry Potter is contemporary fantasy.

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  9. Thanks so much for this post! My story actually takes place in a town I lived in four years ago. Even though I remember a lot I still use google earth quite often just to refresh my memory.

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  10. I adore Gilmore Girls because the plot is so rich. Stars Hollow is absolutely vital to the storyline. Each character is starkly different, with their own way of talking and outlook on life. They even have their own problems and stories! Sometimes I just stare at the screen and wonder how on earth the script writer could weave everything together so beautiful! It is inspiring.

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  11. Why is it that every time I start looking at a certain aspect of mt story, you guys put up a blog post about it? Setting is exactly what I've been thinking about with my stories recently, thank you so much!

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    1. I like to think it's because we're well connected to our community of readers, but it's probably a combination of that and luck :)

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  12. I love reading and writing colorful contemporaries :)

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  13. In my contemporary, I made up a town. I never actually specified where it was, but from the weather and such, I suggested it was somewhere in southeastern America.
    One contemporary I read recently that had a pretty cool setting was Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen. The descriptions and details were really awesome!


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. I like how Sarah's books are all set in the same invented town. (Except for two, I think, that are set in a vacation destination for that town.) It creates very fun cameos and it's something really fun for her dedicated readers.

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  14. I'm in the middle of first drafting a contemporary novel right now, and I know the setting got me tripped up a little bit. My setting isn't very clear, which, like you said, is something that doesn't always need to be clear in a contemporary. I think as long as you get in those important details about the setting, it should bring it alive for the reader. I think it's a bit harder to make the setting unique in contemporary, but when done right it works really well.

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  15. Great post! How would you approach setting for a historical novel? Some things (like weather) obviously remain constant. My story is set in Leipzig, Germany, however, and the World War II took its toll, not to mention the natural morphing and growth of the city over the years. Even the idea of pulling out a modern map seems daunting, not to mention that it could be incorrect. What are your thoughts?

    Thanks,
    Sophia

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    1. I talked about historical worldbuilding in this post: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/09/worldbuilding-for-historical-gathering.html

      I hope it's helpful!

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  16. I'm going to switch from historical to contemporary this summer, and this post gave me some great ideas. Thanks, Stephanie! :)

    ~Schuyler
    www.ladybibliophile.blogspot.com

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