Kick Ass Book Club: Literary Crash Course – Setting

I’ve been threatening for a while now to start a blog-based book club.

But a lot of people have told me that they don’t know how to talk about books. Even though I have a fancy-schmancy degree in Writing and Literature, you really don’t need one to talk about books with your friends.

One thing you WILL need, though, is a little bit of a new vocabulary.

Stay tuned for a series of posts on how to Kick Ass Book Club- How To Talk About Books!

Today’s topic?

Setting

It may seem weird to talk about setting first, but I think setting is the most important part of a story. The book’s setting informs every single aspect of the story.

Setting has TWO elements: place and time.

setting place and timeYou can’t forget either. A setting can be as simple as A kitchen, over breakfast or be as complicated as a made-up series of geographies, like Middle Earth, one thousand years ago or Westeros, in the distant past. And obviously, settings can change throughout a book or series– take Outlander, where a nurse literally time travels two hundred years and then galavants through Scotland, France, the Americas and a billion other locations– and eras.

Change any aspect of a setting and the book becomes a completely different story.

That’s why you so frequently see, like, updates to Shakespearean plays where the story goes from Verona to a high school. Both place and time inform a billion details about a story– whether it’s based in fact or entirely made up, or even what kind of technology is available to a character. Setting informs if a character’s actions are acceptable or unacceptable. Or, worse, setting will show if a character’s actions or even a plot device are out of step– like, if a character uses a computer in the 1950s, he or she better be a physicist at NASA or else that action doesn’t make sense!

You’ll always get the gist of a book’s setting from the back blurb or the inside flap.

Most synopses include passing phrases like, “Growing up in Los Angeles isn’t easy…” or “Being the captain of a whaling boat has its issues…” or whatever. If the era or time period isn’t mentioned, one can assume the time part of the setting is contemporary to the year in which the book was written or published. To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t come right out and say the year, because the problems are very on-the-pulse for the year it was written.

hand-vintage-old-book

For me, books get ruined when the setting doesn’t make sense.

A while back, I reviewed a book that was hotly anticipated on the literary market– The Miniaturist, which takes place in 17th century Amsterdam. The setting is so important to the novel, but for me, the actions of the characters were entirely anachronistic– or not appropriate to the time period. 

This is usually less of an issue in SFF (science fiction/fantasy) books, because the world and its rules are almost entirely made up. If the future world created seems realistic, we generally call it science fiction, while if it’s based in science but completely bonkers, it’s referred to as speculative fiction. Also, while there are sometimes accepted rules for fantasy worlds (vampires hate the daylight! werewolves can only be killed with silver!) because fantasy books deal with the entirely fictional, their settings can sometimes be completely off-the-wall.

A great example of SFF setting is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. The setting of the book is literally An underground society functioning beneath the streets of contemporary London. The book’s setting has touchstones in reality but because it’s entirely fantasy, Gaiman makes up rules about the setting as he goes along.

Important Questions to Discuss For A Book’s Setting

  • What is the setting (place and time) of this book?
  • How is the setting different from where and when I live?
  • Will I have to do any research on the setting to better understand the story?
  • Is the setting real, or entirely made up?
  • Is this book taking place in a made up past or a realistic past? A made up present or a realistic present? Or a speculative future or realistic future?

Check out the next post in this series- Characters and Plots!

Leave questions or suggestions below– or let me know if you want to start an online book club with me.

 

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