The two main aspects of setting, time and place, form a matrix that ranges from the time of day to the outer reaches of the universe. Some books, such as The Road, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, are inescapably tied to their settings. Other novels could be set anywhere or anytime and it wouldn’t affect the story much at all. No matter what the genre, care needs to be taken to create a believable atmosphere that will keep the reader engaged.
Fictional settings take advantage of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If desired, an author can move back and forth between actual events and embellishment of the facts. The whole genre of Steampunk, for example, is based on taking a generally accepted stereotype of nineteenth century England and molding it to the writer’s will, an “alternative history.” When seamlessly done, the reader is immersed in another world.
Research is important for realistic fiction, because obvious inconsistencies will distract the reader. Authors Rosamund Pilcher and her son Robin use businesses and factories as settings, and their authentic portrayals of whiskey distilleries and woolen mills hook the reader on an intellectual level that lends credibility to their novels.
Historical fiction is largely built on facts, but the author is free to mix them up if the story calls for it. In the final pages of The Help, Kathryn Stockett notes that she moved the existence of Shake-n-Bake ahead a few years to advance some characterization in her novel. (These twists on the facts should be subtle for the best results. If Sacagawea is snacking on Twinkies, it’s going to pull the reader out of the story.)
Fantasy, paranormal and science fiction rely more heavily on a reality created by the author, but whatever the genre, the characters need to be consistent with their surroundings to fully connect the reader. The language used, clothes worn and social conventions of the time are all extensions of the setting. “Young ladies taking exercise by the shore” supplies a completely different image than “babes in bikinis at the beach.”
Setting is not just a backdrop to the storyline. When well constructed, it is the framework supporting a world that the reader can get lost in.