Monday, May 18, 2015

The Setting Can Screw You: A Cautionary Tale

So last week I dug down into my TBR pile and found a popular book by one of the big names in m/m romance. I've read and enjoyed several other books by this author and trusted that I'd be in for a few hours of fun.

Sadly by about half-way through, I wanted to bounce my kindle off the floor.

You want to know why?

Because one of the heroes lived in Seattle, and the other worked in Tacoma, and they drove up and down Interstate 5 and never once complained about the traffic. For someone who lives in Seattle, that's sort of like neglecting to mention the rain or the Starbucks on every corner.

In a Seattle Times article last March, a group called the Tom Tom Navigation Company said Seattle had the 5th worst traffic in the country. We were right there behind Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu. This is not a new problem. We've been in the top ten for the last twenty years at least. 

But seriously, as much driving around as the guys in this book did, most of the action would have had to take place in the FBI agent's SUV, because they would have been spent the whole novel on the freeway.

I don't mean to get ranty about Seattle traffic - although it does suck - but when a character in Tacoma agrees to meet someone in Seattle by 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, their first thought better be "How soon do I have to leave?"  Because if I had to drive those 45 miles, I'd give myself an hour or even ninety minutes. Though I loved the interaction between the characters and thought the plot was clever and suspenseful, in my mind the author missed something pretty basic.

And as a writer, that kind of scares the crap out of me, because you don't know what you don't know.

You know?

Regardless of the setting - or the time period, for that matter - I want to get the details right, to avoid bumping the reader out of the story with something as dumb as a missing traffic jam. Either I limit myself to writing contemporary stories set in Seattle, or I better have some strategies for ensuring my own accuracy.

I dug around to see if I could find information about how to keep from making setting errors, and to a large extent, it's a problem of worldbuilding. 

But Liv! Wait! 

Worldbuilding is for fantasy novels or science fiction, not contemporary settings. Right? 

Apparently not. 

The post Check Your Facts on The Editor's Blog is a great resource for preventing setting errors. It also reads like the mirror image of Patricia C. Wrede's list of worldbuilding questions. Ms. Wrede's list asks, "what kind of animals are in your world?", while the Editor's Blog post asks "are the animals in your story appropriate to the world?" They're coming from different angles to get at the same information.

(Janice Hardy's also got some good information on developing your setting in this Worldbuilding 101 post on the Fiction University blog.) 

When you're working with a contemporary setting, I think the tendency is to assume things are pretty much the same as your own reality. Grinding down to the level of detail suggested in any of the sources I've mentioned would take a whole lot of work, and most of the information you develop would never make it onto the page. Maybe the answer is to streamline some, to tackle the most pertinent bits of information and make sure you get them right.

But how do you decide what's pertinent for a place you've never been to?

  • Research
    • Thank God for the internet! More importantly, thank God for GOOGLE! I read as much as I can stand about all aspects of my chosen setting, and will even take screenshots of specific locations from GoogleEarth. I save the links in Evernote, organized by topic, or on the Pinterest board for that story.
  • Visit
    • All the research in the world can't replace actually standing on the ground. It may not always be economically feasible, but visiting the location of your story is the best way to get the nitty-gritty details that can make a setting pop. Google is very, very good, but it can't replace your own five senses, nor your experience of a place.
  • Beta-reader
    • If you're serious about writing, you know the value of a good beta reader, but I would argue that if you're going to set a story outside of your own home town, you should try to find a local to read through it. My urban fantasy novel Hell...The Story is set in L.A., and after one of the final editing passes, I sent a copy to my sister who lives there. Her whole assignment was to take a red pen to anything that didn't ring true, and her ideas and suggestions were invaluable.
I'm pretty sure I would have had all kinds of helpful suggestions if the author of the traffic-less book had asked me to beta read it. Maybe I should track them down and offer to help with future projects...

My list of suggestions for how to keep the setting real is by no means exhaustive. Do you have any ideas to add?



  1. I think it's more of to pick your battles on what you need to know. Writers get hung up on researching novels like they're doing term papers, trying to please the 1% of the audience who might know. I was stationed in Washington State for 6 years, but I wouldn't have caught the traffic part because I haven't been there since 1995 If the author hadn't done her research, I would have picked up on it by vagueness of the location. I would expect someone familiar with the location or having done the research to mention rain and city names like Gig Harbor, Olympia, Nisqually, and maybe kid a newbie about mispronouncing Pullyup.

    NCIS is set in Washington, DC. If you didn't live here, you probably wouldn't know that they get a lot wrong. They've said they were going to race off from the Washington Naval Yard to Norfolk in an hour, which is 4 hours away if the traffic is good. But they've had a big picture of the Metro map displayed, called it a Metro and not a subway (we don't call it a subway), and have used names of local cities. They've even had Gibbs go down and watch the Unknown Soldier sentries. Again, you had to be there to know if it was a blue screen and he could not have possibly stood where they had him standing. If I'd only visited DC once or two, I'd never know other parts were wrong because the parts were right. In fact, one of the worst setting-books I read set here was because the author took one big picture DC item (Supreme Court) and did no other setting whatsoever. Using well-known street names and mentioning the Capitol and the Washington Monument would have gone a long ways on setting.

    1. It's totally a pick-your-battles thing, Linda! And the thing is, there are so many good resources - on-line newspapers, real-estate information, individual neighborhood blogs - that there's really no excuse for missing the big stuff, and even some of the little stuff. For example (rant alert) the MC who worked in Tacoma LIVED on Goose Island, which apparently is outside of Chicago. With as many islands as there are in Puget Sound, why didn't the author choose something that actually existed?! It totally affected my ability to enjoy the story.

      Hmm...I am working on something that takes place in DC. Maybe I'll see if you can beta read for me when it's done? Thanks for the comments....

    2. Liz, I live and work in DC and will be glad to beta read for you as well.

    3. Crap, I meant Liv. LIV!
      Sorry about that! And in an offer to beta-read as well. Sigh.

    4. No worries, Elizabeth. I get "Liz" a lot - and I bet your fingers type it automatically, since it's technically your name. When my DC piece is finished, I may well track you down.

    5. Sure, Liv. Just make sure you call the subway a Metro.

  2. I was reading a story set in Dublin and was totally immersed in it. Until the characters met "On the steps of the GPO" and I ground to a screeching halt. The GPO in Dublin doesn't have steps, it's one of the few wheelchir accessible buildings there. So I spent the rest of the book looking for mistakes and not caring about the characters.

    1. Seems like if you're going to use an existing building in your story, you should, I don't know, look at a picture, maybe? Because I'd do the same thing you did, Eileen. It's a suspension of disbelief kind of thing, and if an author blows that with me, I spend the rest of the book turning every little factoid around in my mind instead of paying attention to the plot.
      Thanks for checking in!

  3. Still, I'm pretty sure only a Seattle resident would throw the kindle at the wall for that... Interestingly, I've read a fair few set in Seattle recently, and I don't recall much about Tacoma Seattle traffic... although in one there was CONSIDERABLE traffic at the Canadian border en route to Vancouver. :-)

    I do agree that setting and worldbuilding an research is important, though. The fewer readers to throw their books, the better!

    (I reckon I know which book you're talking about too...)

    1. I figured you might recognize it, Ellen. And I will say I think it's totally possible to set a book in Seattle without ever mentioning traffic - unless the characters spend the whole time running up and down I5. Because the trip from Seattle to Tacoma is longer than what it shows on the map.

  4. This kinda reminds me of how in the movie, 'Congo', there's like an establishing shot of Houston with the mountains visible. The problem is that Houston could not possibly be any flatter. It's kinda funny :)

    1. You have to wonder what the director was thinking. Like, people are going to notice the mountains (or lack thereof). I have never seen Sleepless In Seattle, but apparently it plays fast & loose with our local geography, too. Goofy.