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The Pecman

Specific Location/Time or Not?

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I had an interesting discussion with another writer in Email recently, and I think it's something worth debating here.

This author wrote a fairly-decent story, which -- aside from my usual complaints that the story's pace was too slow and doesn't get to the point fast enough -- was very well-done, with interesting situations and well-drawn characters. What I didn't like was its lack of location or a specific time. We have no idea what city or state (or even country) in which the story takes place, nor do we know *when* the story takes place.

His excuse was, if he leaves the name of the city blank, the reader is free to imagine his or her own place instead and identify with the story better. He also didn't feel that the specific time was necessary, although it's obvious from the context that it's sometime in the last 5-6 years (presence of cellphones, DVD players, etc.).

I couldn't disagree more. All of the published authors I read and enjoy the most -- among them Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Anne Rice, and a score of others -- devote pages and pages to inciteful descriptions of the precise time and location in their stories. Establishing the setting is an extremely important part of fiction; it makes the story more real, and helps the reader visualize the surroundings much more vividly.

In this story, we have no real mental image of what the high school looks like, or what most of the various characters' homes look like. We know the lead character's boyfriend lives in a nasty part of town, we know it's up some stairs and only has a couple of rooms, but that at least gives us some clues. Everything else is a cypher.

The key to me is to use as many of the senses as possible when establishing the setting, so the reader can see, smell, feel, and otherwise sense the place. I'm not saying this has to be done in a long or tedious way. Just two or three sentences, inserted a couple of times here and there, makes all the difference in the world. If you doubt me, read these two books:

SCENE & STRUCTURE

by Jack Bickham

Writers Digest Books (ISBN #0898799066)

and

SETTING

How to Create and Sustain a Sharp Sense

of Time and Place in Your Fiction

also by Jack Bickham

Writers Digest Books (ISBN #0898796350)

Either book, particularly the latter, will make a far better case than I ever could as to the importance of establishing when and where the story takes place. Bickham's point of view is that to NOT do it is simply lazy at best and a disservice to the reader at worst. He presents many examples of what works and what doesn't, and I think 90% of what he has to say is right on the money.

Don't get me wrong; I think there are cases where the setting is not important or even appropriate, particularly in short stories -- I'm thinking particularly of fantasy or science fiction, where the uncertainty of the location or time might be the point of the story, like in Harlan Ellison's famous "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." But I think giving the reader a thumbnail sketch of exactly where and when the story takes place is absolutely mandatory in a lengthy character-driven novel.

With my own work, I see these stories like little movies, and I feel honor-bound to put as much detail as I can in them, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the plot or the characters. But that's just my opinion.

What's the consensus out there?

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What I didn't like was its lack of location or a specific time. We have no idea what city or state (or even country) in which the story takes place, nor do we know *when* the story takes place.

What's the consensus out there?

I don't feel the need to explicitly state either. However all stories take place in A time. So if you can't figure it out easily from the text, you better hint heavily. AWMS doesn't tell you WHEN it takes place, but it's very obviously in the 1990s sometime from all the historical references.

Same for where. In AWMS I tell you. In ADIP (or was that Dog?) the place is NEVER mentioned other than it's quite clear it's some small town in present-day times. Whether it's Texas or Utah really doesn't matter. It all depends on the point of the story.

I do hate stories that begin:

"My name is John and I am 6' 3" and live in San Francisco" that's just crap writing. My two cents.

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A story doesn't need to be in a specific time and place, but it does need to be set clearly enough so that the reader has a good idea of when and where it is, and therefore what the people and places are like. Sometimes it *is* useful to have it as "Anytown, USA, circa 2000" or even a spaceship sometime in the 24th century. No, the author doesn't have to put in a subtitle of "Anytown," although he may jazz it up a bit and make it "Greentown," for instance.

Within that, it's helpful to give as much detail as possible, but sprinkled around in the text, not all at once in some dragging narrative chunk. That simply fleshes out enough so that the reader knows what is going on in the story, and so the characters aren't stuck on some bare stage or some blank room... unless of course, they are and that's part of the problem. :)

Of course, if the time and place don't operate by the rules the reader is used to, then it's absolutely necessary for the author to give the reader clues, through the characters' actions and thoughts, and the settings, of what the rules are. Most science fiction and fantasy is like that, and much historical fiction too.

Heh, it's very hard to give hard and fast rules when there should be very few rules. The limits are the writer's and readers' imaginations, after all.

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A story doesn't need to be in a specific time and place, but it does need to be set clearly enough so that the reader has a good idea of when and where it is, and therefore what the people and places are like.

I agree to a point. But the fact remains that I'm hard-pressed to think of a single memorable novel that doesn't tell me exactly when and where it takes place.

My mind keeps taking me back to the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (which started as a fine novel before it was a movie), where they not only tell you you're in Phoenix, Arizona, but it tells you exactly what time of day it is, as a title. I was always struck by that, and my gut feeling is that anything the writer can do to make the story more real is a good thing.

So far, none of you have come up with a reason as to why omitting the details of the location (or time) is a good thing. In both my novels (here on the website), I touched on street names, local landmarks, and all the other details that I felt added to the story I was trying to tell. If you've read either of them, I hope you'll agree with that.

That having been said: when I was editing Keith Mystery's stuff, he and I got into some knock-down drag-out discussions in email on how much "local color" is too much. My joke with him was, he kept trying to tell "the history of Boston and the surrounding area," which he'd sneak in whenever his characters were driving around the old neighborhood. What he did was still done very well; I just felt it worked better cut down by 2/3.

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If I was a professional author I could do the research required, but as an amateur if I want to set a story in Queensland, for example, then I run the risk of making mistakes if I make the location too specific. I don't live in Queensland, and I don't visit that often.

My opinion only, of course.

Graeme

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...but as an amateur if I want to set a story in Queensland, for example, then I run the risk of making mistakes if I make the location too specific.

Oh, I dunno. To me, that's what maps and the Internet are for. Just figure out the location, make a few phone calls, and you can pepper in enough details to make the story real.

As one example: in my story Jagged Angel, I set the first two chapters in Phoenix, Arizona, a city I've only visited for about two hours. About one hour of free Internet research got me some city maps, names of streets, neighborhoods, freeways, and schools, and I was able to stir all that in just here and there, enough to at least give readers the flavor of what the city was like. The two boys in the story's open could mention the names of real schools, I could have them journey down real streets, and to me, it gave it that much more verisimilitude.

Maybe I'm obsessive-compuslive, but I also go to the trouble of mentioning a specific date and getting the day right; little things like that piss me off when I read a novel, and they say "Christmas of 1992 was on a Sunday," when I know damn well it was on a Friday. Sure, it's a trivial point, but I believe it all adds up in the end.

I wrote those first chapters of Angel when we had a horrendous heatwave here in LA, and our air conditioning was busted, so it was about 95 degrees in my office when I did most of that writing. I believe this is called "suffering for your art." :) But that accounts for the emphasis on temperature in the first part of the story.

Last comment: I seem to recall no less than Isaac Asimov once saying, "I don't have to have visited outer space in order to write about it." Asimov's classic SF tales certainly make you feel you've been in space and on other planets, and his descriptions are vivid enough, you feel like you know the story's location very well. That's all I'm getting at -- that if you leave out those details, whether the location is real or imaginary, the story's impact is greatly reduced. To never mention the city or give us details about it is lazy writing, period.

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Maybe I'm obsessive-compuslive, but I also go to the trouble of mentioning a specific date and getting the day right; little things like that piss me off when I read a novel, and they say "Christmas of 1992 was on a Sunday," when I know damn well it was on a Friday. Sure, it's a trivial point, but I believe it all adds up in the end.

Amen. You're not O/C, you're just anal. And so am I, especially when I write. :)

I am always looking things up for the sake of accuracy. My scenes set in airports even include the correct terminal and ticket counter locations. You'd never notice but a resident of NYC, for instance, who had been in that terminal in JFK would certainly recognize it. The details absolutely add up.

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Amen. You're not O/C, you're just anal. And so am I, especially when I write.  :)

I am always looking things up for the sake of accuracy. My scenes set in airports even include the correct terminal and ticket counter locations. You'd never notice but a resident of NYC, for instance, who had been in that terminal in JFK would certainly recognize it. The details absolutely add up.

Yeah, they definitely do. One of the easiest ways to throw me off a story is to have details of a place I've been in it and have them wrong. That grates, in a way that makes it really hard to take the rest of the story seriously.

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Yeah, they definitely do. One of the easiest ways to throw me off a story is to have details of a place I've been in it and have them wrong. That grates, in a way that makes it really hard to take the rest of the story seriously.

I often get annoyed when I'm reading a story that takes place where I live, in Southern California, and they make some dumbf@ck mistake about how a certain place looks, or where it's located.

One writer for whom I edited for a while (whose story is on this site) had some scenes set here in LA, but he made the giant error of having people bop back and forth between Anaheim and Hollywood in a few minutes. Uh-uh. That's a 45-minute ordeal, and twice that time in bad traffic. We had to make some radical changes in logistics just to make those trips anywhere close to reality.

And I'm sure many of you have seen movies set in your hometown (or a place you know well), where a character turns from one street to another -- streets that may not even connect in real life. I don't mind that as much as the former scenario, but it does point to the need to get the details of your location straight, whenever you're telling a story.

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Yeah, they definitely do. One of the easiest ways to throw me off a story is to have details of a place I've been in it and have them wrong. That grates, in a way that makes it really hard to take the rest of the story seriously.

I often get annoyed when I'm reading a story that takes place where I live, in Southern California, and they make some dumbf@ck mistake about how a certain place looks, or where it's located.

That is my point. If I'm going to use a specific place in a story, I want to be accurate, and that is more difficult if I haven't been there myself. Maps and the internet can only take you so far -- you need local knowledge.

For example, there is a town in country Victoria called Wangaratta. It is only because I know someone who used to live in the area that I know that many locals call it "Wang", rather than the full name. Getting that wrong is the equivalent of your Hollywood/Anaheim situation.

Graeme

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