Dream up a cast of interesting characters, shovel plenty of adversity at them, and how they cope makes for the bones of a story. This was my mind-set around seven years ago, when I made my first serious attempt at writing a novel. Despite being a Northerner, I chose London as the backdrop, partly due to me spending a lot of time working down there at the time.
What I failed to appreciate at the time though, was just how important the choice of setting can be. It’s one thing to simply state to your reader where events are taking place. It’s another entirely to make that place come alive, complete with the sights, scents and sounds that drop a reader smack bang in the middle of your scene. I’d done enough to attract the attention of a few agents with my first draft, but looking back now, I realise that my characters were playing their parts against a bland backdrop. One of the key changes I believe made the difference for me, and helped me find an agent, was making the setting pop off the page like a character in its own right. It makes everything more vivid, more three-dimensional. You need to view your setting through all of your character’s senses, not just their eyes. There are some great examples around at the moment, like Ian Rankin with his Rebus novels set in Edinburgh, or Ann Cleeves and her Shetland series. and hopefully I’ve used my experience of working on London to capture enough of its character and spirit in my own writing.
Nowadays, I like to visit the places my characters do wherever possible, and walk in their footsteps, but thanks to tools like Google street view, you can even bluff your way through it to an extent. However you do it though, never underestimate the role that setting can play. Whether it’s set in a big city, tucked away somewhere rural, bounces from one country to the next, or even set on another planet, learn from my mistakes, choose carefully, and give it as much thought and TLC as you would one of your characters. You’ll not regret it.