Whether it's Dubai, Kyrgyzstan or Hogwarts, a carefully chosen location does not merely give context to the action of a novel, it builds worlds real or imaginary and can even dictate a character’s path and choices.
Authors explain the absolute importance of location and setting
‘I was left with an impression of a fantastic actual and/or soon-to-be city, an abracadopolis in which buildings flapped against each other, and skyscrapers looked wobbly or were rumpled or might be twice as tall and slender as the Empire State Building … a city where huge stilts rose out of the earth and disappeared like Jack’s beanstalk, three hundreds metres up, into a synthetic cloud.”
So writes Joseph O’Neill in The Dog, and even if his protagonist had failed to name the city he finds himself in, it would still be instantly recognisable as Dubai.
A carefully chosen location does not merely give context to the action in a book. It roots a novel, helps to build worlds real or imaginary and can even dictate a character’s path and choices.
Could Sherlock Holmes, for example, have delved into mysteries anywhere but Victorian London, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”?
Arthur Conan Doyle’s vivid evocation of the city’s murky fogs, dun-coloured buildings, eerie alleyways and ghostly shadows cast by gas lamps mirrors the action and heightens the suspense, as well as inspiring a legion of film and television directors.
Then there is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the setting of which – 19th-century upper-crust New York in the Gilded Age – is intrinsic to her social morality tale. Or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which could not have existed anywhere but a post-war America in the throes of an anti-establishment counter-culture.
In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, the rural, unspoilt landscape and simplistic farming community is a metaphor for Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ innocence, the weather mirroring her emotions in a pathetic fallacy.
But why is location so important in novels? Does it simply form a backdrop or has it a deeper role to play?
“I think setting in any novel is hugely important,” says Liz Fenwick, the author of a six-book series set in Cornwall, in the south-west of England.
A regular at the Emirates Festival of Literature, she wrote much of the series, which includes The Cornish House and A Cornish Affair, while living in Dubai.
“The setting creates the world of the story and limits it,” she says. “Each location provides its own set of rules in which the characters have to make decisions.
“Setting also sets the mood of the story, which helps shape the emotions readers feel.”
That was a technique Conan Doyle mastered by juxtaposing the foggy streets and a “dun-coloured veil” hanging over rooftops with “the melancholy business upon which we were engaged”.
Even the architecture and shrubbery reflect the mood in Sherlock Holmes’s first outing, A Study in Scarlet, with “vacant melancholy windows” and “sickly plants”. Bright, cheery sunshine and murder mysteries clearly do not mix. Crime writer Sophie Hannah is trying to combat that supposition, however, with her upcoming novel Did You See Melody?
During a recent writers’ workshop in Dubai, she said there are “not enough murder mysteries set in five-star spa resorts”.
Her latest contemporary psychological thriller, inspired by a real-life disappearance, is set in such a resort in Arizona. It involved lots of real-life research, with Hannah padding about in hotel slippers and even testing massage essential oils to bring a touch of realism to her fantastical crime story.
“I really wanted to write a book not set in England, inspired by my experience of going on my annual American book tour,” says the British author.
“I don’t think there is any other crime novel set in a luxury spa resort, so I think I have invented a luxury sub-genre of crime called spa noir. I am hoping it might catch on.”
With the book due out in August, review copies have been in circulation. “Every time someone says the one thing they love about it is the spa setting, that is actually important,” says Hannah.
“When creative-writing tutors and crime writers in interviews say, ‘Setting is so important’, what they usually mean is some grim, industrial city where there are social tensions. They never mean a really nice steam room scented with orange blossom – but setting can mean that, too.”
The setting neatly guides expectations of how the story will unfold, she adds. That is true whether you are reading romance novelist Belinda Jones – whose 11 “travelicious” books are all set in different exotic locations, from Costa Rica to Capri, with equally enticing suitors to boot – or the seedy gang-riven underworld populating a 1930s seaside resort depicted in Graham Greene’s morality tale, Brighton Rock.
Geoffrey Mead, a historian from the University of Sussex, says of the latter: “The town is a great character in its own right.”
He adds that Greene’s damning portrayal of Brighton’s crime-ridden underbelly made local authorities squirm to the extent they felt compelled to issue a disclaimer.
“The local authority of the time, Brighton Corporation, was horrified at the picture painted of the resort, both in the book and later in the 1947 film,” says Mead.
“At the end of the [film’s] opening credits there was a message on the screen to the effect that all of the events of the film took place a long time ago and Brighton was not like that now.”
But it is not only in terms of grim reality where location in novels comes into its own.
It can also offer escapism, romance, adventure or, says Joanne Harris, “a window into another world”.
The bestselling British author of Chocolat, which was turned into a big-screen blockbuster in 2000 starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, she thinks the setting of a book is deeply significant.
Chocolat interwove magical fantasy with a colourful evocation of quaint, conservative life in rural France, which provided a vital foil to the characters’ decisions. It was followed by two sequels, The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur le Curé.
“In most of my books the location is at least as important as some of the characters,” Harris says.
“That’s because I’m interested in the way people relate to their environment – the difference between town and country living, the effect that environment has on upbringing, the way people reflect different aspects of their personalities in different environments.
“It’s not just decor – at its best, it’s the engine at the heart of the novel.”
Debut novelist Tom Callaghan, a Dubai-based former advertising executive who launched his book A Killing Winter at this year’s literature festival in the city, chose the bleak former Soviet landscape of Kyrgyzstan as the setting for his crime thriller.
“If you use the same places the masters have used, it just becomes another obstacle to overcome. With Kyrgyzstan, nobody had written about it,” he told The National at the launch.
It is not essential for the writer to have lived in the world they depict, nor do those worlds have to be rooted in reality.
J K Rowling’s Hogwarts, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia are no less believable for existing only in the author’s imagination.
Even with real-life locations, online research tools and Google Street View have replaced the need for writers to have experienced cities for themselves before writing about them.
Sometimes an imaginary interior life can be even more vivid than one grounded in everyday mundanity.
“Writing about Cornwall when I was living in Dubai was challenging at times,” says Fenwick. “I’d be looking out at blue skies and bougainvillaea thinking about horizontal rain and log fires.
“On the other hand, I missed our home, which created a yearning for me to capture Cornwall on the page as much for me as for the reader.”