Yesterday I helped a friend scout out a location for a scene in his book. We went to an ostrich farm. He had originally planned for the scene to take place on a non-ostrich farm, but he thought a few of those amazing birds could spice things up a bit.
And, I think they will.
It got me to thinking about my own settings in my stories. Most of the time my scenes take place in pretty ordinary locations. A Pasadena condo, a suburban home, a bakery in Paris. Even when I set my stories in places that most people wouldn't know about...say Thailand or Brazil, I often downplay the "exotic" nature of the place because I thought it might make the story too gimmicky.
But, lately, I've been realizing how exciting it is for readers to experience a new location while they are going through the story. It helps the story work double duty, taking readers on a physical trip, along with the emotional trip I hope I've managed to create. It makes me think much harder about the settings in my stories.
I don't think a setting has to be exotic to work, but I do think the place where your scene occurs should affect the actions and emotions of your characters. A neutral setting may serve to establish your characters in space, but chances are the details about that setting will feel extraneous. If the setting has an impact on the story, it feels much more important and more well-thought out. It also feels more real.
If it's a place many people might already be familiar with, I now try to focus on unexpected details about the place. For instance I recently wrote about a scene that took place in Notre Dame Cathedral, and instead of only focusing on the beautiful stained glass windows, I had one of my characters fixate on the checkered floors.
If the scene in your story takes place somewhere I'm not familiar with, a bit of research will usually be called for. Then, it's up to me to share the facts I learned without making the details feel too forced.
Setting was something I didn't pay much attention to for a long time. But, now I see it as an exciting new element to work into my stories.
What about you? How do you come up with the settings in your stories? What sort of impact would it have on your story if you moved a scene from one setting to another?