I was reminded of this while listening to the radio the other day. One DJ said, “I’m going to spend a week on the beach in Maine.”
If I had read that line in a book, the author would have lost credibility with me. Because I grew up in Maine, I know that while it has some beautiful beaches, most of its more than 2,000 miles of shoreline consists of a rugged, rocky coast. The same thing happened in a book where an author named a town in Colorado “Maple Gap.” A strange thing to name a place in a state where maple trees aren’t common. Other than that, the book was wonderful, but it made me wonder: does the author know her setting?
I even made the same mistake myself, misnaming the river that flows through San Antonio in my first book, Romanian Rhapsody. Oops. For every person who pointed out my mistake, ten must have noticed and lost a little faith in me as a writer.
How do you keep the reader in your fictional world?
• Get the physical details right. If possible, visit the place, so you can experience it with all five senses. Study it online, through books, first hand accounts. Talk with people who have been there.
• Get the words right. This applies mostly to historical novels. In my current work in progress, I discovered that “scat” was used in 1845, but that “squishy” didn’t appear until 1847. This also applies to fashions, machines, and items of every day life.
• Get the characters right. In my current WIP, my hero looks at the heroine, thinking she looks like an angel. I added a great punch line. “Satan was an angel of light, he reminded himself. Don’t let her looks lead you astray.” The problem? She has done nothing to suggest she will lead him astray, nor have I portrayed the hero as paranoid about women. I have to rethink that line.
• Keep the details consistent. If the heroine has green eyes in the first chapter, don’t change them to hazel in chapter ten.
I would love to see examples of setting in your writing. Send a paragraph or so description and let us savor a different time (if applicable) and place. Below are two snippets of my recently released book, Prodigal Patriot, a historical romance set in northern Vermont.
Josiah brushed at the mosquitoes that buzzed around any exposed patches of skin,
far worse here than in Maple Notch. Transporting Van Dyke to his home via Lake
Champlain had seemed like a good plan when Solomon suggested it. On the water,
Josiah wasn’t so sure. Every insect in two states decided to feast on them en
route. . . . .
Van Dyke guided them through milfoil and water chestnuts
toward the bank, where trees grew so dense Josiah didn’t see how even a fox
could squeeze through. The canoe glided underneath the cool canopy, the lake
only a slender line of blue through branches blurred by foliage.