With all the demands of beginning a novel, it’s easy to overlook setting and milieu. It can feel like background. But attention here is well worth it. Payoffs include:
Snatching the competitive edge. Editors are jaded. Give them something new.
Sparking your imagination. Mine your setting, and let it keep your writing fresh.
Giving your story context and complexity.
Using the sensual world to deepen characters and their emotions.
In science fiction and fantasy, it’s called world-building. Here, the bar is high. Readers especially prize originality. My world in Bright of the Sky began with a question: How can I write an epic science fiction story without space travel? The result: A tunnel universe with a contiguous geography. It was a bold idea, but it seemed too outrageous. I spent months digging up ways to make it work. That setting, or milieu, was the most-remarked upon feature of the book in almost every review.
Setting is not so much described as dramatized. A good setting doesn’t need–and can be killed by–long descriptions. When you are describing, go for the telling detail, not the bland and obvious. Prune and shape description, using exact words and rich verbal imagery.
Going Beyond Locale
In the opening I suggested that setting can deepen emotion and characters. Think about how place influences people. Even the geography can suggest personality: the big sky of Montana, the hyper-urbanity of New York. Regional literature has always exploited that relationship (e.g., No Country for Old Men). Beyond geography, setting is informed by culture; let yours create barriers to characters’ goals (Romeo and Juliet). Plumb the setting for archetypes (the ship at sea as life’s journey; the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India as an emblem of the mysterious, the unknowable.) Setting is a decision you make at the concept stage of your story. Think of the most evocative place that works for your story. Let the setting play off your theme, your characters, your plot. In these early stages, each thing informs every other. It’s an iterative process, as you play with the relation of place to your story.
Once you’ve chosen your milieu, be sure to go deep; plumb the subconscious; look past stereotypes; search for the humanity, the surprises. For example, look at:
What is hidden in this place? What are the cultural/historical secrets you can reveal as your story proceeds? Use misdirection to surprise readers.
What is buried and lied about? We (and society) repress the most important things. The longer they are buried, the hotter they become.
Who disagrees? What religious/political/social factions do not accept the milieu? Show different characters’ takes on the same thing. Who is happy, and who dissatisfied?
Settings to learn from: River of Gods, Ian McDonald; Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin; Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells.