In this second part of Who What When Where and When, thought we might take a look at Where and When together, as they both involve setting the scene.
A strong sense of time and place can be very important in your story, giving context to the plot and allowing the reader to settle in, safe in the knowledge that he knows where he is.
When, the time in which you choose to place your plot. This may be absolutely crucial. If you are writing anything like a historical, we must believe we have turned the wheel of time and gone back in years. And that means research. Unless of course you happen to have an in depth knowledge of seventeenth century France or prehistoric Britain.
Be careful with your specialised knowledge. Whether you had to look it all up or just delve into the filing cabinets in your mind, please don’t give us the whole history lesson. Choose your facts carefully, only telling us what we need to know to put the story into context. And if you must info-dump, then do it as footnotes or slide in an appendix. Vast chunks of explanatory fluff which might have appealed to you in the research phase will turn off readers and persuade them not to read on.
It might be a good idea just to go back a few years, to a time when technology was less obvious in life. In these days of mobile phones and instant personal communication, writing a suspense novel is much trickier than it ever was when getting a message across three counties might have involved only smoke signals.
What about the future? How far will technology take us now? The world lays before you and you must lay it in front of us, with all its new laws, transport or whatever. If you’re writing fantasy, you can dream wilder, weirder, further than those coping with the present day, dropping your information even more carefully, drip by drip, if you are not to info-dump and scare us off.
Make it clear from the very beginning when you have sited your tale. Put the date in if you like, ensuring that every detail fits the time you have selected. Leaving out the mobile is easy, but do you know how street phones worked in 1950? No, neither do I, but you may need to find out if your journalistic sleuth is ringing in his story to the New York Times. Styles of clothing, speech, especially slang, and etiquette change drastically within only a few years. You don’t need to tell me all, but you had better know so that the ring of authenticity is right there, in your book.
Where you set your novel or story is even trickier. Take me to the Amazon rain forest by all means. Drop me into the middle of Manhattan if you like. Or plunge me into the cityscape of Alpha Centauri. I will suspend my disbelief and go with you to the very ends of the earth and beyond. And I will have no problem with whatever you tell me about, say, taking a bus ride through the Highlands of Scotland, because I have never been there and done that. Someone will have though, so you have to get the details bang on. Check them out, preferably in advance before you write, definitely after you’ve written that first draft. If it’s not right, someone will notice and you will lose credibility.
Be careful if you only know the place as a tourist. Take your hero there as a tourist too, because if you try to persuade us you really know your way around, you could run into trouble. It’s easy to believe that a month on a Greek island will give you the low-down, but your details won’t have that authentic ring of a real native.
It isn’t just the geography. OK, you spotted the sights and found the bus station and know where to buy fish and chips, now what about the rest? Uneven pavements that make it difficult for an old lady to walk along without tripping. Tall buildings on narrow roads giving a menacing darkness even at midday. And the smells? I live quite close to the Suffolk town of Southwold, which has a brewery. Almost every day, you can smell it, that hop-py smell as the day’s mash is made. Strong and sweet and cloying, love it or hate it, you cannot avoid it. You could get all the details of the town from the internet, but that smell has to be experienced. And an ancient local will tell you how it really is if you take the wrong seat in the Nelson at lunchtime.
It’s the little things that take us to another place, another time. Seek out more than the obvious. Paint us a picture of your landscape, your time. Gossip and legend will bring more colour to your tale than mere facts ever could. Tell us what we need to know, filtered through your writer-ly eyes and we will hang on your every word, waiting for the plot to develop, convinced of where we are in the world, wherever and whenever that world may be.