Self-evidently, you can set a novel anywhere, anytime, in any context. But there are particular settings which have drawn writers — great and not so great — and which always seem to offer something. Here, I consider ten settings which resonate particularly. This is not by any means an exhaustive list, nor, necessarily, a correct one. But it may get your thoughts going, which is what it is for.
Revolutionary South America
Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is arguably the greatest of the revolutionary South American novels in English, but you might also like to consider John Masefield’s Sard Harker and Odtaa. South America has a lot to offer the novelist: lost cities (and treasure) in the rain forest, the Andes, revolutionaries from Simon Bolivar to Che Guevara and on to Chavez, Eva Peron, gold, silver, ship wrecks, undiscovered tribes.
One of the things which worries aspiring authors is that they may never have been to the places they want to write about, and, if they have, they get so caught up in trying to represent it faithfully that they lose the magic. Don’t worry about this: Joseph Conrad’s Sulaco was entirely fictional. Whether or not you have been to South America, you certainly won’t have been to South America in the time of the conquistadors, nor of Simon Bolivar, nor (unless you are quite old) in the time of Che Guevara. And if you have been, you will not have been to all of South America, nor have experienced all the lives of all the people who live there. Writers these days obsess about research, but it’s the books which make the most use of it that get the most roundly criticised when they get it wrong.
One of the benefits of writing about South America in the revolutionary period is that it’s easy to insert a plausible but non-existent and short lived nation in which to set your story.
Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed, more famously, as Blade Runner) are all 20th century classics which take us into the heart of a dystopian future. You might also consider William Gibson’s Cyberpunk trilogy: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Dystopian futures grew in the imagination of readers and writers throughout the 20th century, gradually displacing humanistic dreams of a perfect society. For a writer, the future city offers endless possibilities, but also a fair few traps. Philip K Dick wrote hundreds of novels and stories which in some sense reflected a vision of a future world in collapse. They have been increasingly mined for film settings: Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, Screamers, Second Variety and Paycheck, but, aside from A Scanner Darkly, the film-makers have generally kept the setting and changed the plot. Dick frequently got stuck in the worlds he was creating, and the story lost its way.
Cold War Europe
Cold War Europe is really ‘aftermath of the Second World War’ Europe. It offers endless opportunities for bleak scenery, unfinished business, espionage, blackmail, and revenge. The Cold War runs out in 1989, so there’s a wealth of authentic documentary film, news reporting and photography to work from, although, again, obsession with research has been the downfall of far too many authors. London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin and Moscow provide hugely evocative settings, but the less well-trodden streets of Brno, Yerevan, Cheltenham (home to GCHQ), Ghent and Aachen have got a lot to recommend them.
Out of fashion now for a while, galactic civilisations are making something of a comeback. Galactic war is, of course, impossible, because, even at the speed of light, the distances are too great to allow any kind of conflict, and this is probably one reason why science-fiction writers turned their backs on the it. But, as with any other setting, writers should remember that they are crafting fiction, not creating some kind of alternative documentary. Get the stars in more or less the right place, have some plausible method for travelling between them, and then focus the action on the same kinds of conflicts and human relations that drive all other stories. One of the huge benefits of the Galactic scenario is that you can draw on many sources of inspiration without having to make any claims to viable research. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (don’t bother with the subsequent books, written decades later) drew heavily on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire while Frank Herbert’s Dune borrowed extensively from Lawrence of Arabia. The biggest pitfall of galactic writing is a failure to set parameters. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series (progressively) became a riot of ever more convenient and bizarre technological advance. An even bigger pitfall is suddenly introducing magic into the science-fiction universe. Although writers such as Tanith Lee have done this with more or less success, but, generally speaking, spell-casting on a spaceship disappoints more readers than it pleases.
Court of King Arthur
The court of King Arthur has drawn and inspired writers since the high middle ages. The ‘original’ story is in several bits, which don’t necessarily fit together especially well: Uther Pendragon, Vortigern, Merlin, the young Arthur and the sword in the stone are one end, while Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred and the death of Arthur are the other. There’s always some mileage in retelling these, though TH White and Thomas Malory have done it so well that it’s rather a risk. However, the vast majority of medieval romances deal with the adventures of Arthur and his knights in between. Some writers strive for fifth century AD ‘authenticity’, but almost none of the Arthurian stories could possibly have taken place when they were historically supposed to, even if they were ‘possible’ in other respects. TH White’s solution is to mix everything up, including Robin Hood. Thomas Malory set everything in more or less the time he was in (the Wars of the Roses). There’s probably not much mileage in setting things in the present day — though the film The Fisher King makes a good stab at it — but virtually anything which is vaguely medieval will satisfy most readers. More important is getting the atmosphere of courtly love and chivalry, without over romanticising them.
JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Ursula LeGuin created entire magical worlds entirely separate from our own, but Alan Garner, John Masefield and JK Rowling were content with rearranging the rules of our own world to create a magical world within our ordinary world. The great attraction to writers (and to readers) is that a magical world is entirely new, entirely fresh. But problems can easily set in when, either, there are no parameters and hence no internal consistency, or when too much is borrowed from elsewhere. Both Tolkien and Lewis borrowed extensively: Tolkien’s world is Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse in its inspiration, but very judiciously and selectively. Tolkien criticised Lewis for mixing the Anglo-Saxon world (dwarves, giants) with the Greek (satyrs, fauns, centaurs), although Lewis’s world is internally consistent for other reasons. Aside from dragons, as much inspired by Tolkien’s Smaug as by mythology, but essentially closes the door to all of the other mythical creatures available. JK Rowling appears, on the surface, to have included everything she possibly could — but this is not the case. Crucially, she excludes both dwarves and Tolkien-esque ‘noble’ elves. Whatever you do, don’t introduce elements which are the distinctive invention of another author, if you want to avoid writing mere ‘fan-fiction’. Hobbits, Hogwarts, Wardrobes and Archmages should all be avoided, at all costs.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Scaramouche, A Tale of Two Cities, the Scarlet Pimpernel and many others draw their setting directly and as historically as the author was able from France before, during and after the revolution, which seque naturally into the Napoleonic wars. Historical accuracy is, for once, all important, largely because this is a genre which has been very strictly established. Dumas had a whole team of researchers at his disposal. However, he didn’t have the internet, and so you are probably in a stronger position overall. Interestingly, the ‘great’ French revolutionary novel is yet to be written: A Tale of Two Cities is generally regarded as one of Dickens’s weaker novels, Scaramouche, despite the memorable film, is merely so-so, and the Count of Monte Cristo gets lost in its own endless and contorted revenge. For a setting which promises so much — betrayal, self-sacrifice, riots, sword-fights, the overthrow of a way of life which had lasted from the dark ages, the French Revolution as yet to fulfil its promise for literature: over to you, perhaps?
English Country House
From the Hound of the Baskervilles, to Jeeves, and from Agatha Christie to Scooby Doo (bizarre how many English country houses made their way into America), the English Country House is a world in microcosm which can accommodate virtually any story you care to throw at it. It is its ability to act as an interesting container, with its own quirks if and when required, which makes it such a ubiquitous setting. If you are writing in the UK, there is almost certainly a country house owned by the National Trust within a few miles of where you live. A large number have been made into hotels, and it’s even possible to rent them entire through the Landmark Trust. Older houses frequently do have secret hiding places — if not secret tunnels — which were used variously in the troubles of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of them have ghost stories attached, especially those that have been a part of the tourist trade for some time. As a way of bringing disparate characters together and then preventing them from leaving (flooded rivers, or the police simply telling no-one to leave), English country houses are hard to beat.
In a similar vein, Victorian London, with its pea-soup fogs, and the hint that Holmes and Watson may be detecting just around the corner, provides enormous resonance for tales of squalor, espionage, crime, ghosts, lunacy and evil in its purest form. Jack the Ripper, the debtors’ prison, the workhouse, strange animals and artefacts brought from the British empire and down the Thames… but also balls, ballet, the music hall, the theatres, Nelson’s column, the underground railway, hansom cabs: 19th century London was in many ways the capital of the world, and a capital place for any interest the author has.
1930s Los Angeles
The world of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, 1930s Los Angeles is another place you will never be able to visit, and are unlikely to be old enough to remember, but which has enormous resonance. By contrast with modern Los Angeles (I’ve never been, but have seen oh-so-much of it on TV), it is almost always raining in 1930s LA. The Great Depression, the rise of Hollywood, the impending second world war, organised crime, the proximity to Vegas, Mexico and, of course, the ocean, mix with the smells of white oleander, sumps of emptying oil-wells, chain-smoked cigarettes, and the generally boozy atmosphere of post-prohibition US cities, are now all hugely nostalgic, and full of strong plot possibilities.