Why Is Your Story Set When and Where It Is?

A friend of mine was complaining to me about a book she referred to as Steampunk Lite–basically a so-called Steampunk that started strong but then devolved into  a boring forbidden love story that never brought up the Steampunk elements again–and it reminded me of a rant I’ve been working on for a while. Are you ready for my theme? Because here it is:

The time and place your story is set cannot be arbitrary.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? I mean, why would any writer choose to set their story in a historical time or an alternate version of our world or the future or another world altogether if they did not have good reason for doing so?

I can’t answer the why, but I can attest to the fact that I regularly encounter writers who seem not to have spared a moment’s consideration for the setting they chose–everything from historical romance where the story literally could take place in modern times without being different; to fantasy worlds where the fantastical elements were nothing more than re-named cultures and cities from Earth, or else the story was so divorced from any kind of magic or fantastical element that it might as well have been contemporary Earth; to modern stories set in part of America the author has clearly never been to and in their ignorance fails to use appropriately as a plot device (looking at you, Beautiful Creatures).

Stories like that disappoint me, in part because they cut a few cables holding up my disbelief suspension bridge and in part because they are missed opportunities.

In the case of romance, I read 95% historical, and the bigger problem for me in this context is the suspension of disbelief. If a writer is writing essentially a costume drama, AKA “mistorical fiction” (history shrouded in mist), then the odds are high the book will not be well researched or include much world-building, which make the historical setting seem pointless, and also that the story or characters will exhibit serious anachronisms that move the story from pointlessly set in the past to insulting because I’m being asked both to believe something that just could not have happened and also to waste my time on a contemporary story in costumes when what I wanted was an actual historical story. For me, an historical setting has to drive the plot in a significant way—generally, with romance, it involves social constraints or customs that would not have existed in an earlier or later time that inform the arc of the story itself. It might be how the hero meets the heroine, or why they are kept apart (or forced together), or how they come together in the end, but at some point, something in that story needs to happen that could not happen at any other time or any other place. In fact, the appeal of historical romance is often that it involves constraints that don’t exist nowadays, that make drama easier and yet still realistic. Nowadays most (inter)personal issues seem petty, and the really big dramatic stuff is not how most of us live our lives and therefore feels unrealistic. The  historical stumbling blocks of duty to family, financial necessity, expectations of society, don’t matter anymore. Too often, though, I see writers who seem to think they didn’t really matter then, either.

With fantasy/science fiction the issue is more, as my friend was saying, a feeling of being rooked. The cover and premise offered one thing but did not deliver the goods–it’s like the publisher brought a Pinto, painted it a color unique to the Starchief and replaced the logos, and tried to sell it as a Starchief. No. It’s just a mislabeled Pinto. Someone on the #amwriting blog, back when it was still  active, talked about this in a Steampunk context. Very good rant. Read it. After I read it the first time, I added “why is your story that particular genre?” to my list of questions to ask. Because if your story could be another genre/sub-genre without changing anything except the window dressing, you’re doing it wrong.

When I encounter stories like either of these, I think they are written either by people who know they like a particular genre but misunderstand why, or by people who don’t like the genre, but do like playing dress-up, and want a story that fits their worldview (as opposed to the story that would fit the worldview of their setting) while retaining the costumes and props they enjoy.

I have seen this disjunct happen in contemporary stories, as well, strictly with respect to setting. For example:

  • I watched a movie set in (contemporary) Japan about two American brothers who reunite when they find themselves both in Tokyo at the same time. But nothing that happened in the entire movie required it to take place in Japan. It could have been New York, or St. Louis–the story could have happened in any city in America. Setting it in Tokyo felt completely arbitrary, like the filmmakers wanted an excuse to travel or realized they needed something more interesting to film than Overland Park, Kansas, which to me smacks of an attempt to disguise their inability to actually make a compelling film.
  • A week later I watched a movie set in India about an Indian-American man seeking an arranged marriage. That story, in sharp contrast, needed to take place in India because it could not take place in America. Nor could it have taken place at a time other than now, because the current social mores in both India and America mattered to the characters. That story could not take place in any other time or place and be the same, and the setting felt both necessary and proper to the telling of that particular story.

So, just to reiterate, setting is not arbitrary. The setting of your story needs to directly influence what happens within your story–and if it doesn’t, then you’re writing either the wrong genre or the wrong story.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance, Writing

3 responses to “Why Is Your Story Set When and Where It Is?

  1. ABE

    Even in contemporary stories (which end up being historical just because time has passed between when the writer starts and the novel is finished), the writer has to be careful not to let an anachronism creep in. Technology and medicine, for example, take leaps and twists. A story set right before the AIDS meds were developed that make AIDS a dangerous but chronic disease rather than an immediate death sentence must take that into account.

    A story I started before 9/11 needed significant change when I moved the date to the 2005-2007 time period.

    I wrote a mystery novel which might have almost sold (hard to tell from the kind of rejections I got), and which is my next project: bring it back as a historical mystery – but be very careful when making changes. It is set during the period of the Cold War, and that is significant. But most modern readers won’t remember how it felt to have the old Soviet Union lurking behind everything.

    Good background hint: remember the wars surrounding your story.

    Good rant.

    • Excellent point about “contemporary” fiction. I am paranoid about writing, for example, modern-day YA fiction because of how fast technology changes, and the social aspects of it – when you write a story Facebook might be the thing everyone is on, but the next year it’s not. Medicine, cellular, computers…all of it changes, or can change, quickly enough to make a 12-month lag significant. How many horror movies are now obsolete – oh, he cut the house line? shrug. Cell phone still got service!

      I like the point to remember the wars. Throughout most of history, even in the periods without wars that fact would be significant and remarked upon.

    • Oh – and to your point about the Cold War. My husband and I have this disjunct. He is 8 years older than me, and he can remember drills at school for in case the Soviets bombed us. By the time I was in school, their power was on the wane. I remember hearing about the Berlin Wall on the radio, but I had NO context for what it was or why it mattered or why it had been there at all.

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