The setting of my debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is Mill Valley, California, a small, leafy suburb just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. But though Mill Valley is a real place—and, as it happens, my hometown—I knew from the start that I wanted to treat it fictionally.
In part, this meant that while I (mostly) used the town’s real history and geography, every person and business in the book is invented. But it also meant that I wanted to approach the town as I would the book’s characters, giving it the kind of story arc and shades of personality that readers expect from the human characters.
Too often, settings end up being just that: a sort of stage set on which the characters carry out the action of the novel. I wanted the Mill Valley of my novel to be much more than that.
Here are a few principles I found useful as I worked to make that goal a reality.
1. Do your research
To write well about your characters, you have to know them intimately, and the same goes for a place.
When I went back to Mill Valley to see family, I made a point of visiting places I knew would show up in the book—my old Little League baseball field, the town’s central plaza universally known as “the Bricks,” the crumbling World War II-era coastal artillery bunkers where we used to party when I was a kid.
At each site, I took notes on what I saw and heard and smelled, as well as about who was there and what they were doing. More than once, my observations found their way directly into the book.
I also did a fair bit of research into the history of Mill Valley and the surrounding Marin County. The internet is great for this. I found old maps that showed the area in the early years of Spanish settlement before California became a state and read amateur histories of the area running from the arrival of the Coast Miwok people, through the years of the Spanish settlement, and right up to the waves of people brought by the Golden Gate Bridge and World War II.
This helped me create a “backstory” for the town, which, in turn, made it easier for me to build a compelling dramatic arc for it.
2. Give your setting a dramatic story arc
In a novel, a “flat” character always stays the same, while a “rounded” character changes over the course of the story in a compelling way. The same holds true, I’ve come to believe, for settings.
We all write plenty of “flat” settings—a bar where two characters meet, a courtroom where a trial takes place, etc.—but I wanted the town at the heart of Blithedale Canyon to have a story arc just like ones I gave to the book’s main characters. And, just as with a human character, that meant something vital needed to be at stake for the town and the action of the novel needed to put those stakes at risk.
For the Mill Valley of Blithedale Canyon what’s at stake is the question of what kind of town it’s going to be. In the novel, the generation of small-business owners who made the town is dying off, replaced by fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs and tech gurus. The family of Trent Wolfer, the novel’s narrator, owned a shoe store where his granddad repaired shoes in the back. Nearby malls killed off that business, and now, as Trent says at one point, “All the old stores are gone. There’s nothing left in town but chain stores and art galleries.” Trent takes a job at a locally owned grocery store where the son of the owner is trying to harness the power of the web to out-compete a high-end national chain and keep the business in his family. This battle for the town’s identity becomes an important secondary plot for the book.
3. The setting’s story arc has to connect to the central plot of the novel
It’s all well and good to offer your readers a storyline for your setting, but if it doesn’t connect in a meaningful way to the book’s plot, readers will wonder why it’s there.
In Blithedale Canyon, the central plot is a love story. Trent is a drug addict and alcoholic who moves back to his hometown to live with his mother and her tech-millionaire second husband after narrowly avoiding a long jail sentence for defrauding the owner of a liquor store in Santa Barbara.
On the surface, Trent would seem the last person on Earth to care about Mill Valley’s small-town feel. But his grandparents’ shoe store was a haven from the chaos of his childhood, and he wants more than anything for the world to return to the one he knew then. So, almost in spite of himself, he throws himself into the mission of saving the grocery store, thinking that if he can make that work, he can make all the other dysfunctional parts of his life work as well.
In this way, his story arc and the story arc of the book’s setting are joined as one.
4. Grant your setting the subtle shadings of character you would grant a central human figure
Readers are drawn to complexity of character, especially when that complexity leads to surprises and insights.
In my case, it would have been easy to take potshots at Mill Valley, with its stratospheric wealth and its culture of sun-glazed self-regard. And I did take my shots. Early on, Trent rails at how the town has “become an upscale theme park of itself, the bus depot made over into a trendy bookstore, the old head shop into an art gallery, the pharmacy into a doggie daycare, everything everywhere cleaned up and prettified for the tourists on their way to Muir Woods and the ocean beaches.”
But I also wanted to show the side of the town those tourists might miss. Because he’s local, Trent goes places few visitors will ever see and the people he meets there belong to a tight-knit community largely invisible to people passing through.
I wanted to be true to both sides of the town’s character, the rich, self-satisfied, Teslas-and-aromatherapy side, and the one inhabited by ordinary working people barely hanging on in a place that has become increasingly inhospitable to them.
5. Your other characters must relate to your setting as they would a human character
It’s not enough that you view your setting as a fully realized character; your other characters have to see it the same way, or else the reader never will.
Each of the main characters in Blithedale Canyon have a particularized relationship with the town they live in. For Trent’s wealthy stepdad, a hippie turned tech entrepreneur, it’s the canvas on which he’s painted the masterpiece of his own life. For Suze Randall, the woman Trent loves, who has moved back home with her two kids, the town is a perilous ladder out of the hole she’s dug herself with a disastrous marriage. And for Trent, it’s his last, best chance to make a home for himself after he’s failed everywhere else.
The point is the setting of your novel should never be static, never simply be the place where the events of the plots happen.
Just like a real place, it should show a different face to every person who lives there. And just like a real place, it should be in constant flux, ever at risk of losing its way or rising to meet its potential.
Tell us in the comments: What are your favorite books that make the setting a character?
Michael Bourne is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, Literary Hub and Salon, and his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary magazines including december, The Southampton Review, and Tin House. Raised in Northern California, he now lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and son. Blithedale Canyon is his first novel. You can order it on Amazon, Bookshop, or Regal House.