I promised the other day to offer some comments on setting in fiction, so here they are.
For many of us, the setting of a story is a matter of convenience: We set it in our own town because we know the place. Or we set it in New York because it's a story about fashion models and show-business impresarios, and that's where they hang out. Or we set it in Sagan City, Republic of South Mars, because it's a science fiction story.
These are all terrible reasons to choose a setting.
Whether it's Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s Long Island or Tolkien's Shire, the setting really is a kind of character in the story. Geographically and socially, the setting shapes the other characters, making some actions inevitable and others impossible. Sometimes the characters themselves are new to the setting. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is a Midwestern boy trying to make something of himself in New York, just as Gatsby himself is. New York has drawn them to it, but its values are not their values, and something is going to have to give.
The Lost Garden and the Heavenly City
I chose Long Island and the Shire off the top of my head, but now that I look at them, I realize I'm already moving into literary archetypes. The typical quest gives us a rustic hero, growing up in obscurity, who for some reason must leave a world where he is somehow in tune with nature. Often it's because something has gone wrong in Paradise, and the only way to fix it is to go forth into the larger world.
His adventures take him many places and test many of his qualities, and at some point he ends up in a great city or royal court. He may go on to other settings, and perhaps return to his rustic origins. But he will recapitulate a major human experience over the last three or four thousand years: the journey from wilderness to urbanity.
In the Christian myth, the whole human race is expelled from Eden and engages in a quest that (if successful) ends in the Heavenly City. But most writers, to judge by their work, find both Eden and Heaven pretty dull places. They prefer the rough-and-tumble of adventures in this world.
If they must deal with Eden or the Heavenly City, it's usually with irony. Tolkien can be pretty harsh about the small-minded people who infest the Shire, and he's not so kind to those city slickers in Gondor either. H. G. Wells's time traveler encounters a fools' paradise in the far future, and Orwell's Winston Smith lives in a demonic parody of the Heavenly City, where the worst thing in the world is in the basements of the Ministry of Love.
The Promise of Social Commentary
So here you are with your modest little novel about growing up miserable in Santa Monica or Duluth or the Yorkshire moors. You may not even think about archetypes in fiction, for heaven's sake. You just want to tell a story.
But as soon as we know where your story is set, we bring certain expectations to it. The place has a history, a population of a certain kind, a set of social values (often more honoured in the breach than in the observance). We want to know what you think of your setting just as we want to know what you think about the hero and his mother and the girl next door.
Is Santa Monica in the 1980s a great place to grow up, or a sterile intellectual wasteland? Is 1890s Duluth a place where an enterprising young man can make a fortune, or a place that will devour him and spit out the bones? Can Heathcliff and Kathy find happiness on the moors, or should they run away to Birmingham instead?
Remember the wonderful story in Dubliners where a young woman is about to leave Dublin to join a fine man and make a new life in Buenos Aires. It's her one big chance for happiness, but Dublin itself drags her back. The whole society, James Joyce is saying, suffocates its young people.
Henderson's Tenants is set in my own town of North Vancouver about 25 years from now. That's so that I can contrast its present happy state with what might happen after a quarter-century of very bad decisions, both here and abroad. The social capital that makes life pleasant here has been squandered, and the community has become a very rich minority sealed off from the very poor majority.
Why didn't I set it in Sagan City? Well, I'd probably end up recapitulating the American political experience, as Kim Stanley Robinson does in his Mars novels, only I wouldn't do it as well as Robinson has. And I seriously doubt that any human settlement will take place on Mars in the next couple of centuries, if ever.
Maybe I could have set my novel in some other city—Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta—but I don't know those societies well enough. So I've got a Heavenly Suburb, so to speak, transformed into a demonic parody, a First World society sunken into the Third World. Henderson is a social redeemer who will soon transform his suburb, and the world, out of all recognition.
I'm not suggesting that your novel should have some earnest political subtext—but it will have some kind of political subtext growing out of the setting: Santa Monica is a great town to get away from, Duluth on winter mornings has an icy beauty that makes it worth staying in, and the Yorkshire moors tell us we should be as wild and passionate as Heathcliff and Kathy.
The only question will be whether you use your setting consciously, or it uses you.