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Where Are We? Why Settings Matter

Updated: Mar 24

This is a picture taken from my front window in Chicago at the beginning of a snowstorm a few weeks ago. I could easily see my characters walking in front of my 1917 condo building, smearing the newly fallen snow as they push through the slush.

Pratt Boulevard, Rogers Park, Chicago, March 2021 (photo taken by Sharon Michalove)


When you sit down to write fiction, choosing setting is one of the many things to think about. When I start a project, character is the first thing that comes up for me after the little nugget of an idea. In fact, for At First Sight, characters came before I had an idea of what to do with them. Six Characters in Search of an Author by Pirandello came to mind many times over the years. Even though the story didn’t fit, the title haunted me as Max and Cress called out for a story, any story. But where is as important as who.


Authors have many reasons for choosing one setting over another. Sometimes the story absolutely dictates it. For example, if the author chooses historical fiction, the setting is integral to events and the time period. If I had wanted to write a romance that took place during the Hundred Years’ War, my settings would have been France and England. Sometimes the familiarity of the place is the key factor. Remembering home if you now live somewhere else could be a powerful incentive. If an author loves small towns, then finding or creating a small-town setting might be perfect. Writing where you live can bring a verisimilitude to a book that readers appreciate.


If I had found a story before 2017, I probably would have set it in a university town in the Midwest and it would have been about life in academia, involving a library and some academic departments. By the time I found a story, I had moved to Chicago and the initial story was supposed to be a romantic comedy about a second-chance romance. The city seemed the perfect canvas. And as my ideas morphed into romantic suspense, Chicago continued to be a great setting, both for the story line and as a chance to explore and bring interesting bits about the city to readers who may or may not have any familiarity with it.


But setting is more than just the basic place of the story. My characters first met at Oxford University, so in memory at least, Oxford makes an appearance. So does Istanbul because Max’s big secret takes place there. Cress has memories of Paris and I could relive my own experience of eating ice cream from Berthillon on the Île St. Louis when I lived in Paris in the summer of 2000.


For Chicago, I have neighborhoods, shops, restaurants and cafés, historic buildings, and even the lake. I loved exploring places old and new to me. I knew about the Rookery Building, but to get a better idea about it, I took a tour with the Chicago Architecture Center. I ate at a lot of restaurants. I wrote at Toni’s Patisserie, just like Cress, which sadly closed late last year—a victim of the pandemic.


Photo from the Chicago Loop Alliance


My second book takes my characters out of Chicago, but still to places that I know—London, Scotland, Paris, Venice, and back to Istanbul. I am planning a later one that takes place in New Orleans, for which I took a trip with a friend to get a feel for a place I had never been. Fingers crossed that we will be able to go again before I write that book.


I’m also planning a second series that focuses on a rare-book expert and a caterer. It takes place in London because I think Cecil Court, a place where Peter and I loved to go look at second-hand books and rare maps, is perfect. I get the chance to live in London, at least vicariously. My early goal of being English can be fulfilled fictionally in my characters.


Photo taken by Gerry Lynch, from Wikipedia


When you read a good book, sit back and enjoy the settings. Indulge in the chance for armchair travel.

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