Writers often use setting like a painted backdrop to their stories, rather than as an integral element of their storytelling. As DEs, we can help them make the setting come to life.
If we think of Wuthering Heights, we think of the Yorkshire moors. When we think of Moby Dick, it’s a whaler on the Atlantic Ocean. My Antonia = the Nebraska prairie. In each case, the same story could not be told in another setting.
Not all stories need to be as closely identified with their settings: a cozy mystery could take place in small-town Oklahoma about as easily as it could be set in small-town Ohio. But readers need to feel as if the events are taking place somewhere.
Make Setting Concrete
One of the most common setting problems I encounter when I’m editing is what I like to call the undisclosed location. The author drops the reader into the middle of the action in some unnamed locale and the story unfolds without our ever knowing where, exactly, it’s unfolding.
So, I have to encourage the author to name the setting early on. A vague “college town in the Midwest” is not the same as Ames, Iowa. Even if the setting is made up, it needs to have a name and a location. If the setting is based on a true-life location, I help the author figure out how to make deliberate choices about how fictionalized the setting will be.
Elements to Fictionalize
For example, despite the disclaimer you see in front of every published novel (some version of “Names, characters, locations and events are all products of the author’s imagination”), most writers set their stories in real places: Los Angeles, Oahu, Paris. When they do, readers expect them to get the main elements right: Los Angeles has about four million people, Oahu is an island, Paris has a lot of French-speaking residents.
But some elements may need to be fictionalized: the address where the protagonist works, the name of the restaurant that burns down. This helps preserve the illusion of reality: readers may know that 261 Hudson Street is an apartment building, not an insurance company headquarters, and the discrepancy of having the protagonist show up there to go to work is likely to pop readers out of the story. Or they know that the Chipotle on 23rd Street is in fact still standing so hearing about how it went up in flames is a reminder that they are reading fiction.
If what is happening in a specific location and who is causing it would tend to suggest criminal or unethical actions, I often recommend that authors fictionalize these elements, not because they will get into legal trouble if they don’t but that some readers have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. If an author shows a child pornography ring being run out of the local Pizza Hut, someone, somewhere will be phoning in a crime tip to the local police.
(Same with characters: back when a crotchety old lady ran the Raven Bookstore where I lived and sometimes set my stories, I did not call it the Raven Bookstore and I moved the crotchety old lady to another location so she wouldn’t recognize herself.)
On the other hand, sometimes authors go too far and won’t even let their characters get a cup of coffee from Starbucks, so I assure them that Starbucks won’t mind the ordinary consumption of their goods, even if it is a fictional character drinking the latte.