On Writing – Thinking about your setting

I’ve been musing on the setting in my novel as it’s being edited because the truth is, the story would be hugely different if it was in a different place.

A little background – the novel is about the after effects of a population reducing plague. I had toyed with the idea in the past. I mean, who doesn’t love a population destroying plague?

I chose to set it in modern day Great Britain because of some fairly mundane reasons. I wanted a castle as a part of the situation, and I wanted to have some of the characters be peers. But what got interesting with the setting was dealing with physical violence in the story.

Gun laws are much more strict in Great Britain. Don’t worry, I am not about to get on any high horse about the US gun laws – I was in the Army, I love guns. While I don’t think its unreasonable to screen people a little more closely than we do, or to make people wait a certain amount of time before letting them take their new killing toy home, I have no issue with gun owners, or guns. But….

Access to guns is generally a very important part of a post apocalyptic novel. I can’t tell you how many dystopian or post apocalyptic books I have read where there’s pretty much a chapter where someone, usually the lead character or his buddy, basically describe their many, many guns. The Deathlands series for example, pretty much always started with the lead character and his buddies resupplying themselves and taking glory in their weapons. More modern apocalyptic books tend to use the “prepper” stereotype of the basement full of guns. Here in the US, there is a genuine ease to getting a hold of a gun. I can literally go down to Walmart and buy a rifle and take it home. There’s gun stores and gun ranges, you can buy guns at pawn shops… oh there’s so many guns! If this story was set in the US, things for my heroes would be so different.

But they are in the UK and that means I actually had to really think about where their weaponry was going to come from. So, what that means in real terms is that they couldn’t go to gun stores, they couldn’t just happen to own personal sidearms, and they couldn’t even casually grab them from dead cops because the bobbies don’t generally have weapons. I worked it out (I’m an American, we can sniff out guns from birth) – by having the people involved realize that dead army folks usually have rifles.

It’s also fun to use alternatives. In a place where guns are hard to get, people who are handy with their fists are more important. With it being set in England, there’s a history of archers and battles with bows and I do have some of that as well. What that means, story wise, is that I can’t rely on someone coming in with guns blazing… without explaining it well. If someone has a gun, it has to be explained how they got it.

Another setting issue is that I decided the family castle was actually a star fort. Star forts are pretty cool because they aren’t actually from the middle ages. They’re from the age of canon and they’re designed to protect the soldiers inside the wall. They can be huge. Like, there can be entire towns inside star forts. They aren’t as common in England as they are in France, but they do exist. Because they are designed for slightly more modern warfare, it adds to the setting of my story because I get to give my survivors the unexpected consequence of having a genuinely safe place to live. If you’re curious what a star fort looks like, the one in my book is based loosely on Fort Ontario, NY. https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/20/details.aspx

The big thing I am getting at is that I use the same exact starting event, a deadly plague, and the story would be incredibly different if I used a different setting. If I set this in upstate NY, where Fort Ontario actually is, there would have to be a ton of gun fights because there’s no reason for people to not have guns.

The social situation is also oddly more confining. I’ve read a lot of post apocalyptic fiction set in the US. There’s a strong political element to a lot of it. It tends to be very right wing, and there’s often a strong religious element. There’s also a lot of anti-government sentiment, weirdly coupled with main characters who are generally quite patriotic. Do you have to use these features? Of course not, but if your setting is the USA, and it’s the end times, you have to acknowledge the guns that are literally in everyone’s hands. My book would be distinctly different – and not necessarily worse off – if I set it in the US. I have considered a separate series doing just that.

I might even set it in Fort Ontario… although my survivors would need to be ready for some very wintery nights. At least they’d have their guns to keep them warm, I suppose.



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