I love a good setting. I think the first reason I was drawn to science fiction and fantasy were the settings. Mountains, forests, oceans, so familiar and yet so different. But if the world doesn’t work, neither will the story. Contemporary settings are easier for me because so much is already determined. Most people understand how electricity works, so a character turning on a light doesn’t require much explanation. But that doesn’t mean, there’s less thought that goes into creating contemporary settings–just different. And if done right, setting is another character in the book.
Providence began as a setting for another story and another character. I was looking for a place with a specific sense of history. I had an image of red bricks and old houses in my head. Places like Charleston, SC; Brooklyn, NY; Back Bay, Boston, MA were all contenders. Charleston still holds a special place in my settings folders but I felt that I couldn’t ignore the whole baggage of the South. (I did grow up below the Mason Dixon line). I felt that one neighborhood in Boston was too small so I settled on Providence.
I could do Providence. It had the bricks, the history. But not many people had written about it. Researching it was a challenge. I would go into bookstores and look for travel guides. Sometimes the closest I’d come for Rhode Island let alone Providence was a guide to New England. Google Earth was my friend. I found a wealth of information across the web. But still the story eluded me.
So I returned to the list and chose Brooklyn. There were so many Brooklyn’s out there that I couldn’t find my own version of it. I experienced information overload and I gave up. I walked away from that story and the whole question of setting evaporated.
But I never stopped thinking about Providence. A web clipping here, another book there. A couple of years later, I was working on a romance set in New York City. The characters felt off; I couldn’t get into their heads. Sure, I knew who they were but I couldn’t get into their daily routine. Then I remembered Providence and I took out my maps. I started researching neighborhoods and then apartments. I figured out where they lived and where they worked. I started putting those places on the map and suddenly I knew what my characters did and where they were during the day. They actually lived two blocks from each other.
Everything jelled. I had been living and breathing Providence as a setting for ten years and it worked. It felt real. That kind of verisimilitude that comes close to authenticity. It didn’t hurt that Providence wasn’t a popular setting for books, tv, or films. In fact, it felt liberating. I could make it my own without throwing too many people out of the story.
Context matters. The right setting gives depth and atmosphere to the story. It imparts a way of seeing the world that is unique to that location. It conveys cultural meaning, conscious and unconscious. Providence gave me the background for the kind of stories I wanted to tell.