No constraints. That’s the blessing and the curse of writing fiction.
You can write about anything. You can set your story in any era and any location, from a future colony on a Jupiter moon, to ancient Egypt, to the inside of an insect’s eye.
That’s a lot of freedom. But with freedom come choices, and now you have a lot of decisions to make. Even more than the number of decisions you make in the yogurt section at the supermarket dairy aisle.
Fixing the settings in which my story takes place is the quickest way to cut down the overwhelm, and give my storytelling direction and grounding. Edinburgh offers different activities, foods, sounds, and smells than Istanbul. Peru will be more challenging for a non-Spanish speaking Englishman than Canada. No character will stroll through New York’s Central Park wearing a tank top and shorts in the middle of January (well, no character of MINE ever will…).
If a setting is successful, however, it will do more than just constrain your choices. It will help you tell a more interesting story. In POISON PILL, I set a pivotal blackmail scene in a tearoom. Its cosy and calm atmosphere contrasts with the big stakes of the meeting and creates additional tension. The tearoom also heightens the drama by constraining my characters’ behavior — they are forced to sit in close proximity to each other and be outwardly civil even as their emotions flare.
This scene would have had a much different feel and outcome if it were set in another location. For example, were I to set the scene in an isolated horse barn, the character being blackmailed would have lost control, picked a shovel, and killed the blackmailer, who happens to be the protagonist (trust me, I know the character being blackmailed — he has a temper). As you can imagine, killing the protagonist would have sent my plot on a wild ride somewhere I wasn’t planning it to go.
And finally, here is perhaps the most valuable yet least considered benefit of settings: researching locations is the best excuse to go traveling!
“I think I’m going to set the next book in Rome” Well then, I must experience Roman sunsets and pizza.
“No, wait…The Caribbean is a better choice…” My descriptions cannot possibly do it justice without frolicking on a sandy beach.
“Oh, forget it. Let’s stick to someplace in the U.S. New Orleans looks like a good bet.” I must know what it feels like to get beads! And maybe go on a swamp tour to see alligators.
Now do you see how valuable settings can be to a fiction writer?