For me, science-fiction and fantasy is about more then location – and don’t get me wrong, I prefer some settings more then others when I stroll the fantasy section of the book store – but for me, it’s important to pick a setting that complements your story, and not just pick it because it seems like a neat place for your story to take place.
Usually, when I’m dreaming up a novel, I’m starting of either a conflict or a theme I’d like to explore. I might have a generic idea for a setting, but I usually start to develop the characters next – afterall, I could tell the same basic plot with very different characters, and I’d have a very different story, and setting is something that generally develops over time. For me, setting is more then a bunch of rocks or the shape of a castle – setting is the world, the culture, the mindset that my story takes place in.
For Tower of Obsidian, I was a little over half-way through the first draft of the novel when I decided to stick it into our history – I easily could have set the story in an alternate world and had a lot less research on my part. I was always cautious to attempt historical fiction – I had stuck a fantasy story in our future – I had written alternative, original worlds, but I was always nervous about sticking it in our world, with rules that are absolute and when it all boils down to it, making executive decisions because sometimes, there was no answer or the answer was too hard to translate (the term Duke, for example, was technically not 100% accurate, but I wanted to get the idea of someone less then a King, but a more powerful noble, ruling land. Because none of my central characters were nobility, I knew it was easier to break the titles up). But the decision to stick it in the 10th century came from the story’s theme. I based the story around Celtic and Norse mythological tragedy. Now, we have records of the Celts and the Nords, we know about how they lived and where they went but we have a very Christianized record of their mythology. A thing to remember about historical records is that documents could be lost, so sometimes our only records are of historians making reference to documents that are now lost to us. Most of our classic Latin literature documentation was preserved by Christian Monks during the dark ages, so they mostly preserved the things that they found had what is referred to as Pagan Virtue. Now, there’s more to it then that, but I was interested in the retellings of the story from a non-Christian source to a Christianized source.
I was also highly interested in how we do remakes of TV shows and movies, but that’s a topic for another day.
With the different interpretations of what happened to characters such as Deidre and Grainne, I was able to retell the story within that tradition – but moreover, I was reinforcing the idea of a culture where the old paganism was dying away. I’m a Christian and a fan of C.S. Lewis, and Iet’s say that I used his idea of the idea of a True Myth in the novel. Serving the story, it worked in a way that I think was both utilizing my ideology but still hopefully enjoyable to a secular audience. In other stories, I concern myself over what suits the story and what sort of world is necessary. I will add that many readers are very protective of history – that they might not accept you loosely adapting the world without the header of ‘alternative history’ so tread carefully. Most people probably agree that fiction based on even historical events but acknowledged to be a work of fiction, would have to be considered a lose adaptation, rather than alternative history, but that is a debate for another time.
To sum, the importance of choosing your setting is imperative for the type of story you tell. Consider how a culture came to be, and any natural forces that would shape that culture. You can easily explore a theme if you create a culture or a world that would be ideal for discussion of it – you can develop the world first and figure out what sort of stories would take place in that world, or develop characters and think about what sort of world they would inhabit, but don’t overlook setting as another type of character to build and develop.