I feel like I have been waiting on Connie Brockway’s The Songbird’s Seduction forever even though the truth is I have only had it on order since early June. I’m not typically a fan of Ms. Brockway’s but my keen desire for the book comes from three key factors: It involves a treasure, foreign locations and the Edwardian era. While one of those is an issue of plotting (treasure), the other two factors are issues of setting. And the fact is I’m a settings junkie.
An author can almost always sell a book to me by placing it in an unusual location or time period. My love of Mary Stewart was motivated not only by her lovely prose but her astounding ability to describe the setting of her novel. Her books were so rich in detailed descriptions of the location that it felt as though you were actually there. One of my favorite set of books is M. M. Kaye’s Death in series. The books took me to Berlin, Cyprus, Kenya, Zanzibar, the Andamans, and Kashmir. All of the books are set in the 1950s and 60s and show the sun setting on the British Empire. They are terrific romantic suspense stories but it is the fabulous settings – and the author’s excellent use of said setting – that set them apart from the crowd.
My first Harlequin romance, Lord of La Pampa by Kaye Thorpe, was set in Argentina. It came from my aunt’s collection of books from a time when Harlequin took you all over the world – I remember stories in France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the jungles of South America. The fabulous locations had me hooked on Harlequin all through my middle school years.
Gothic romances are big on settings as well, and I have to believe that part of my love for this genre comes from that factor. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the location is a vital factor in the character of Max de Winter. At Manderley, he is a cold, angry man. Away from it, he is a charming, considerate companion. Manderley itself gets described in more detail than many of the characters. In Simone St. James’ fabulous The Haunting of Maddy Clare, the haunting of the barn at Falmouth House provides the frightening setting for a story of a young girl who endured a horrific crime. Everything about the story revolves around that barn and the events that led up to its haunting. In fact, all three of St. James books – The Haunting of Maddy Clare, An Inquiry Into Love and Death and Silence for the Dead – depend heavily on the setting of the story. It is no accident that the cover of most gothic romances focuses on a heroine and a house, not a heroine and a hero.
Like the gothic, science fiction and fantasy can be strongly dependent on location. The writers have to work hard to establish realistic or enchanting settings that will engage with their readers. The Potter novels by J.K. Rowling not only have the terrific location of Hogwarts but there is the candy shop Honey Dukes, the store created by Fred and George – Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and of course the source of all those butter beers, The Three Broomsticks. In fact, I’ve mentioned just a few of the beloved settings within the series. Rowling did a terrific job of bringing the reader into Harry’s world through fabulous descriptions of the places Harry went to and lived in.
Suzanne Collins created a very different world than Rowling’s for her Hunger Games series but the locations are equally important to her story. The contrast between the wealthy, decadent Capital and the impoverished District 12 are central to the tale and those locations have to come alive before the reader can really understand the conflict. The killing arenas of each of the hunger games are also vital to the story and we feel in each instance as though we are trapped in the domes with Katniss.
Setting is not just location, however, but also time period. In my freshmen year of high school I discovered single title romances. A friend of my mother’s gave me The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I had read many books set in the medieval period, most notably Sir Walter Scot’s Ivanhoe, but The Wolf and the Dove with its dark and violent romance seemed to my teenage self like Ivanhoe with the rose tinted glasses thrown aside. I began to glom historicals taking place in time periods that covered everything from the medieval period to the Regency. In recent years the 20th century has become my favorite time period, especially the years 1900 to 1970. I love the glamour of the 20s and 60s, the look at the war years of the first and second world wars and the look at the difficult circumstances of the 1930s. The 1950s and their link to the start of rock and roll and the glamour of Hollywood fascinate me as well.
While a good setting will always catch my eye, though, it is only one of the elements of fiction. The others are: plot, character, point of view, style, theme and prose (tone and language). Reading A Rose in Flanders Field by Terri Nixon brought home to me just how vital it is to enjoy all the elements of a story in order to consider it a good book. A Rose in Flanders Field takes place during WWI, one of my very favorite time periods. It tells the story of aristocrat Evie Creswell who leaves her pampered life to drive an ambulance in France – this just happens to be a favorite plot for me. Evie is married to Will Davies, who until the war was working as a butcher’s boy; across the tracks happens to be a favorite trope for me. The story included all the action and melodrama of a good season of Downton Abbey, a show I thoroughly enjoy. It was told in first person singular and I’ve always liked that point of view when it is used correctly. And yet I was relieved when I finished the book and was able to turn in my review. What went wrong? I think the author’s writing style simply might not have clicked with me. She was heavy on action where I love a good character driven tale. That disconnect from character and prose was a stumbling block that kept me from being enthralled by a story that was interesting but ultimately, for me, lacking in heart. Not a bad book per se but definitely one that didn’t go above okay.
So how about for you? How important is setting to you in a book? Do you enjoy visiting a particular setting over and over or are you an armchair adventurer in search of exciting locations? Which authors do you feel do a terrific job of putting you in the time and place of their stories? What books do you think exemplify use of setting?