The picture is supposed to represent an office. You’ll understand why I say supposed as I describe it.
Two glamorous ladies sit either side of a gleaming white desk enjoying a cup of coffee. They look as though they’re ready to model the latest designer labels rather than a day at the office. I know the desk is white because other than a laptop on one side, and an Apple keyboard and monitor (no computer!) on the other side, the desks are bare. Apologies, I forgot to mention the vase of flowers.
I’ve worked in many offices, and never have I seen one that looked less real than this. The keyboard and monitor are stylish, but useless without a computer and where is the work they're supposed to be doing? I'm also pretty sure I’d knock over the vase at some stage while working.
The billboard shows a perfect office, but I’ve never yet seen one in reality.
Whatever the genre of your book, one of the most important things to get right is setting. It doesn’t need endless paragraphs of description. A few judicious words in the right place will paint a scene for the reader, and not just any scene, but the one you want people to see.
To me setting covers a number of points, though some may be more important than others at any given time.
Where am I? The genre will give some pointers.
- Fantasy – am I in a different world, or a different version of earth.
- Sci-fi – is it a different world, or a future version of earth? How far in the future?
- Historical – what point in history? What country?
If your setting is contemporary, there are still a huge amount of options.
New York, London, Sydney.....
City, small town, rural, coastal.....
Hospital, fire station, school, university.....
The list is endless.
The location makes a difference to our view of the characters. Do they live in the rush of a large city, or the comparative peace of a rural setting? Do they love where they live, or are they there under sufferance? Why?
Time. What time period does your book cover? In a contemporary setting even a year or two can make a difference to the technology your characters use, or the landmarks they might see. In my first draft of Lives Interrupted I had Kate looking at a memorial that wasn't actually on the embankment until some time after the year the book was set.
What season? This may, or may not be important to your plot.
It’s crucial to get your setting right. The poster I mentioned at the start of this post doesn’t show any type of office I’d recognise as being ‘real’.
There’s a lot to be said for writing what you know. You don't have to let this restrict you, but if you're not familiar with the setting it will mean researching to get it right.
If you set your book in a different country think about the lifestyle, what hours people work, their food, and how they talk. Even though Australians, Americans, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders all speak English, they sound different. They use different words, and some different sentence structures.
If you set your novel in a hospital, and you’ve never worked in one, you’ll need to get to know someone who does. The same goes for setting a book in a university or police station, or anywhere else that works in a very specific way. There’s a reason why John Grisham writes legal and courtroom dramas.
If you get things wrong in your setting, you can be sure there is an expert out there who will see all the errors.
My husband always quotes the start of the film Top Gun when making this point. The inside shots of the cockpit, and the outside shots of the planes making the manoeuvres don't match up. I’m not an expert on aircraft and can’t tell the difference, but I know what a real office looks like!
Yes, we’re writing fiction, but it’s got to be as real as we can make it.