Setting is of course right up there with plot and characterisation when it comes to writing and enjoying a novel.
When a setting is depicted with great depth and detail, it becomes a character in itself within the book and brings the reading experience to life.
The useful thing about setting from an author’s perspective is that it can be extremely versatile. We could focus on a geographical location, such as a region (the wild crimson cliffs of Arizona), a city (the claustrophobic yet vibrant streets of London), or even narrow it down to a particular building or room (the Bates Motel in Psycho). We can also use setting to convey a certain time (the miners’ strike of the eighties, as David Peace did so effectively in GB84).
Whatever time or location is chosen, it is the responsibility of the writer to weave an array of authentic features into the work – while never distracting from the flow of the story – that will strike a chord with the reader and enrich the book.
Here are 10 examples of well-written settings that have magnified the impact of some of my favourite novels.
The Overlook Hotel, The Shining
Let’s start with a strikingly specific location. Stephen King’s classic tale starring winter caretaker Jack Torrance would be nowhere near as scary without the haunting depiction of the Overlook Hotel. Its isolated spot within the roaming Rocky Mountains of Colorado adds mystery and danger, while the building’s troubled history brings spiritualism into the mix. It all adds up to a deadly cocktail of fear, insanity and evil, sending Torrance’s cabin fever spinning out of control.
The Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon, was used as the exterior for The Shining’s Overlook Hotel
The Peak District, Reservoir 13
A 13-year-old girl goes missing in a rural village in the Peaks, and the locals go searching for her in tandem with the police and diving squads. But the area’s web of deep reservoirs and substantial, boggy terrain complicates their quest. Author Jon McGregor delicately exposes the private squabbles and complex historical relationships within this tightknit community; the small becomes big. His abrupt sentences build tension and his sporadic use of local idioms, referencing the farming sector in particular, make every line feel real.
Brighton, Brighton Rock
Graham Greene’s landmark 1938 novel is a story of violence, contrition and love, but the backdrop to it all – the south-coast resort of Brighton – plays a powerful part in tying the themes together. The city’s slot machine rackets and thriving gangland culture, plus the winding streets and lanes and the open waves of the sea, add serious spice to this underworld thriller in the form of escapism and fatalism.
The Pacific Ocean, Dead Calm
Charles Williams takes us to the expansive open waters of the Mid-Pacific Ocean, where honeymooners John and Rae Ingram are looking for solitary bliss aboard their yacht. They rescue Hughie, a young man cast adrift in a lifeboat having escaped his sinking ship, and rather wish they hadn’t. Williams uses the eerie setting of lapping waves, vast isolation and distant horizons to explore the emotions of hope, fear and betrayal that the characters are experiencing.
221B Baker Street, Sherlock Homes
The home base of the most popular detective in the history of literature saw some serious action. With sidekick John Watson, who rooms with Holmes in many of the stories, and landlady Mrs Hudson in tow, there is always plenty of drama. Cases are introduced on the appearance of mysterious guests, ruminated on at length, and solved within these lodgings, with lashings of violence, gun pointing, violin playing and drug consumption (morphine and cocaine) along the way.
Munich Airport, by Greg Baxter
An American expat, his elderly father and an American consular official are trapped at fogbound Munich Airport, waiting for their flight which will also take the coffin carrying the former’s recently deceased sister home. As the bad weather delays their getaway, the book follows the three of them as they deal with being trapped in this awkward location for an undetermined period of time. Baxter is one of my favourite literary fiction writers and he steadily reveals profound character details with aplomb to make this a rich and philosophical read.
The Sun is God, by Adrian McKinty
Taking a break from his Sean Duffy series, this standalone book is set in 1906 on a remote island in the South Pacific, where a cult group of Europeans believe that worshiping the sun daily and eating only coconuts rewards them with eternal life. Former policeman Will Prior is sent there to solve a mysterious death, and experiences several dark and strange happenings amidst McKinty’s masterfully descriptive prose that vaults the island into an authentic bubble in the mind of the reader.
The Spy Who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming
Very different to the other Bond books, this tale is written from the first-person perspective of young French-Canadian woman Vivienne Michel. She is looking after an empty motel in the Adirondack Mountains, north east of New York, for a friend at the end of vacation season, but two nasty mobsters arrive and plan to have their way with her. Bond appears two-thirds of the way in looking for a room having had a flat tyre while passing. During a night of tensions, the mobsters set the motel alight in an attempt to kill Michel and Bond, and a dramatic gun battle and car chase ensues. Fleming is on top form, matching the isolation of the motel with Michel’s vulnerable mindset.
The Ice Harvest, by Scott Phillips
This quirky caper is set in Wichita, Kansas, right in the heart of America, as the snow descends on Christmas Eve. Rogue lawyer Charlie Arglist has close to a million stolen dollars on him and needs to leave, but his dodgy business partner, various angry family connections and local mobsters block his path. The guts of the city are laid bare here, from the grubby bars and seedy strip joints to cops on the take, all of the prose dripping with black humour that is pitched to perfection.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Stories don’t come much more apocalyptic than this. A father and his young son walk through burned America for the coast, scavenging food and avoiding cut-throat vigilantes who will gleefully kill them for their provisions and clothes. The setting here is an all-encompassing one; the ravaged, globally-warmed landscape of a nation – but it feels intensely intimate when told through the terrifying scope of this desperate father-and-son duo.