Think of Gone with The Wind not set in Atlanta but Washington, D.C., Les Miserable not in Paris but Berlin or HELP set in Detroit, MI not Jackson, MS and you have no story. In these books, location IS a character and a main character at that.
The question for the writer is how big a character do you want location to play. Does it define the action, is it a part of history that cannot be disputed, could the plot be plucked and set down in a different location without effecting the entire venture too much? How much would you have to explain if you set your novel some place else or change the dialog?
Many novels have the location as secondary plot. Under The Stars was set in Kenya in the 1930’s. The exoticness of the setting made the plot much more interesting. It helped the author to
grow her characters more easily due to the different ethnic morals and traditions she encounters. Daniel Steele’s novels could be set in any place and in any time. It doesn’t matter if her main character is rich, beautiful but troubled in Cote d’Azur, France, Denver, Manhattan or Rio de Janerio. She gets herself into the same predicaments and acts according to her set standards of the jet set. What happens in the location is not dependent upon the particular traits of Paris or Los Angeles.
A book set in a certain location may be a draw to readers. Many people want to learn things about another culture or geographical location and will pick up a book hoping to do so. If you want location to be a draw, do not set your novel in North Dakota unless it is during the 1870’s, early 1800’s or a mystery set in the oil area of the northwestern part of the state in 2014 where many people have emigrated for the high paying jobs. We just returned from a vacation in Whistler, B.C., Canada and Vancouver. I would love to set a novel in Vancouver but it could just as easily be set in Seattle, Portland or Lima, Peru if all I wanted was beautiful countryside with mountains, rain and evergreen trees. On the other side, talking about a geisha needs to be set in Japan because geisha were only a part of Japanese culture.
I look for location as a primary factor in my fiction reading. I love to travel and enjoy reading more about a city or country because the characters are there. The Diana Gabledon series is intriguing because it takes the readers to the 1700’s in Scotland and then North Carolina and France. I love Daniel Silva’s mysteries because each one takes place in a European city or several and parts of Tel Aviv. I always learn something. On the other hand, Ethiopia as the location for Cutting for Stone, played a subtle and interesting part of the plot. However, the book could have been set in any third world country and the main plot sustained without difficulty.
Dialog has to be grounded in location but not to the point of possible misunderstanding. A “wee” here and there in a Scottish setting is appropriate and gives the reader a sense of the character. Most readers know the meaning of “bairn” (child) but would not understand “Awe’re a’Jock Tamson’s bairns” which means, “We are all God’s children, nobody is better than anybody else – we are all equal.” Most know that “havin’ a look under the bonnet” in Great Britain means someone is going to look under the hood of a car and not peeking under the hat of a baby. This reminds me of Tony Hillerman’s books set in Arizona in modern times where he uses numerous native American saying in their language but translates freely for the reader. It gives authenticity and flavor to the plot. A lot of his plots involved Native Americans and Caucasians together solving murders where the heritages of both entered into the plot line.
Are you taken by location when choosing a book? Do you find it hard to write your story if it is set in a different country. Do you ask yourself if this book has to be set in (place) and (time)? Does it work better in a different location or era? If you are stuck, try writing your story in a different location and/or era. No matter what you decide, remember that location influences what picture the reader develops in his mind. You want to make that as strong a part of the plot as you can. An exercise for learning is to write a short story set in a different country just to see what it entails.
“Haste Ye Back!" - Farewell saying meaning “return soon”.