Years ago, I attended a question and answer session with author Bret Lott.
In it, Mr. Lott detailed the methods he used to ensure that the settings of his books were as down-to-the-details accurate as possible. If he was writing about Richmond, Virginia in 1952, for example, he would research how many gas stations there were, how many miles between this part of town and that, the name of the local supermarket, etc etc. He had it down, quite literally, to a science.
I was a much younger writer back then, and in awe of Mr. Lot's dedication. At that time, I was struggling through my first draft of the Novel Previously Known as Idylwilde, and worried about the wanton way I'd taken a real place, Orange Lake, Florida,
and infused it with all the qualities I needed for my novel to work. MY Orange Lake was not chocked with invasive weeds and shrinking with Florida's sorry water table. It was wilder, more rural than it had been during the time I lived in the area. It was the Orange Lake of my memory and my dreams. Uh, oh.
Not only was I a younger writer back then, I was a braver one. I asked Mr. Lott about taking a real place (um, a place in Florida for example....) and re-inventing it in fiction.
He said that was a lazy thing to do. That only a lazy writer would untether herself from the real honest to god place that was actually there on the map and shrug off the minutiae that gave readers a REAL experience. Something like that. My heart was thudding so loud in my ears at that point that I only heard pieces.
I nodded sheepishly. Okay, then. If I ever got to my final draft, I'd change the goshdurned name of the place altogether! (Yes, Mr. Lott, this is possibly the most lazy response imaginable....)
But even now, after many, many "final" versions of the novel, I have left the setting alone. Because it IS Orange Lake-- MY Orange Lake. And it fits.
In Family, Genius, Species, I took an even lazier route and from the get-go invented a town.... sort of.
I really invented the name of a town, switched around the details, the direction Main Street runs, the level of dilapidation.... but if you live in Western Mass, you know that my Burning Falls is more or less this place:
...a place I love so much I sometimes go the long way around just so I can soak in its wonderful New England Milltown-ness, a place that's in constant, failing renewal, a place that is just so close to perfect it makes my heart ache...
Nowadays, I'm okay with my lazy tendencies-- at least when it comes to setting.
This is fiction after all, and I want to portray the feel of a place, its gritty skies and derelict brickwork, its lush humid air, its whatever I feel it is. That's my writerly prerogative, right?
Do you agree? How do you approach setting in your work?