I just posted some thoughts over at the Online Author Visits site about the importance of making your fiction seem like real life and how setting is a big part of the like-real-life/verisimilitude thing. What you describe, how you describe it, and how you integrate it into the story is a huge factor in transporting the reader from their world to yours.
By definition fiction isn’t real, but what you write, and what the reader infers, can make it seem that way. And it’s not just setting, of course. Narration, exposition, character description, dialogue (external and internal), language, style, voice, relevance to the reader, all contribute to making your story come alive. The inferring, what the reader “gets” out of your story, the truth out of the fiction, often happens between the lines. It’s not so much what a place looks or smells like or what a character says or does, it’s how that stuff connects to the reader, creates a worm hole between worlds and space and time, enters a heart.
An example is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The setting is Europe. The main characters are a gifted young boy and a blind but brave and resourceful young girl who go through much of the story without even being aware of each other. We begin in the 1930’s. The Nazis and the hell they’ve packed in their bags are on the ascendancy. The big picture of what happens isn’t a mystery, but this isn’t a situation or setting most readers would connect with naturally.
The author makes it happen. It took him ten years to write this book, and the evidence is on every page, in every paragraph, phrase, word. It’s poetry, over five hundred pages worth. Is it “real”? Technically, no. But yes, it is. You know it is as you’re reading, as you see the surroundings, get to know Werner and Marie-Laure and all the other wonderful characters who populate this tale, absorb the human condition in all its day-to-day routines and extremes, connect with everything that happens even though all this took place seventy-five or more years ago because it feels so familiar.
We make inferences, not just based on Doerr’s poetry, but also from his uncanny ability to leave space between the lines for us to insert our our personal stories, to fill in the blanks with our own experiences and emotions and hopes and bridge the miles and years to the heart of this story and let it mesh with our hearts and warm and freeze and break them.
We are Werner. We are Marie-Laure. We are Marie-Laure’s father and Werner’s sister and his friend Frederick and the giant Volkheimer and the good Madame Manec and the evil perfumer and even the most diabolical of the Nazis. Can’t we see ourselves in each of them? Doerr makes it so. He writes the words. He leaves space between the lines.
If you haven’t read this book, if you’re going to read only one book this year, make it All the Light We Cannot See.