Picture two people having a conversation. In this theoretical situation, you can see their lips move, but not hear what they are saying. What are they talking about? Is their mood upbeat, sombre, reflective? How do you know?
Picture them at the top of a penthouse suite above a vast metropolis. Not just anyone can afford to travel to big cities, and access to penthouse suites is generally reserved for those with the deepest pockets. So, we immediately know something about our characters before we have heard them speak a word - possibly they are relatively wealthy, are here by accident, or are here as a result of nefarious design.
Now picture them walking through a tribal village on the fringes of a desert. How are their mannerisms, their appearance, different in your mind from those in the first example? Immediately we can see that the topic of their conversation is likely to be different from the characters in the first example, even though we can't hear what they are saying.
This example teaches us that setting in stories can be a powerful tool for a skilled author. Want to write a romance? You need a setting where romance is feasible to your readers. There's a reason why Mills and Boon tend not to set their stories in dank catacombs or sewer systems. If you are writing a noir detective novel, your gumshoe's office had better be a dingy office with heavy blinds (intense sunlight doesn't help capture the mood.)
So in much the same way that the first impression of a character can be defined by their appearance, their name or their actions (often all three), the first impression of the mood of your story is defined by the setting. This gives you the chance to employ the reader's senses to pull them into your narrative. A good writer can capture the autumnal shades of New England, stand besides you as you listen to the bond traders calling to one another on Wall Street, or make you wrinkle your nose at the smell of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.
Of course, many authors embrace their setting, creating entirely new worlds from scratch with a quick shift in their imagination. Many readers will be familiar with the geography of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, or know that Rivendell is an Elven outpost in Tolkien's legendarium. My friend Lesley Smith is set to shortly release the first book in a new fantasy series, 'The Changing of the Sun'. The new worlds from her imagination feature their own unique calendar system complementary to Earth's, and necessitate a small band of heroes setting out across a desert in order to secure their survival from a forthcoming cataclysm. In her novella, 'The Whispers in the Desert', the rawness of the desert bursts forth into lush cities built around water, and the characters feel natural in their environments.
Just setting an alien story on a alien world isn't enough to guarantee a devoted reader base. The worlds we create must have their own logical consistency to be believable - unless the intention is to make them deliberately nonsensical, as is done to great effect in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Assuming that we wish readers to believe our setup, we must understand a few of the basic tenets of world building. People unite into countries and develop their own shared sense of values. Cities form for reasons - those of necessity, trade, religion or geopolitics. This isn't to say that new authors should be afraid to create, but readers will be more inclined towards places that are logically consistent. World building is a topic that deserves a longer post in its own right, and I may decide to explore this in more depth in future.
Writers who prefer to focus on characters may find it easier to use existing locations, and with good reason. Modern romantic fiction (particularly that within the 'chick-lit' subgenre) tends to focus on character, and for that reason it makes sense to use an existing location that readers know or aspire to visit. Popular locations for such books include Paris, city of light and love, London, with its long cultural history and New York, with the perpetual glitz and glamour that comes with being a regular fixture in Hollywood movies. One need only mention the names of these cities and shopping, cocktails, high fashion and classy debauchery all spring instantly to mind. For readers looking for a path less wandered, there are many exotic joys in writing set in Asia, Africa or South America.
You may not be from exotic locales or well-known places but you may still wish to set your story in a location that you know and love. Literature has many examples of books that have made otherwise anonymous locations into world-famous destinations - probably the most famous is Victor Hugo's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', which turned the humble cathedral on Île de la Cité into one of the most famous religious buildings in the world. One of the central themes of the novel is that way that mankind passes ideas down the centuries through art and architecture, and in doing so, Hugo makes Notre Dame a character within the novel.
Setting, as the Hunchback makes clear to us, is about far more than the building, country or world your novel is set in. Setting also gives us our sense of time, and can be used as a lens through which to view societal and cultural norms. Much of the conflict in classic novels comes from characters with minority backgrounds who generate conflict simply by existing within these spaces - think Tom Robinson from 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.
We've seen ways to use locations to drive your stories, and even how you can you can use your stories to make somewhere close to your heart known to your readers. We've also seen that setting isn't just a backdrop, it's a powerful tool for anchoring your characters in a particular place and time, simultaneously allowing us to explore their motivations and create the conflicts that drive the narrative.
Where will your next story be set?