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How & Why I Picked My Fantasy Setting

Fantasy novels are well-known for their settings in interesting and magical places. My book doesn’t quite follow the typical fantasy setting. Instead I chose to set it in a contemporary place – a small town in New Hampshire. Three of my chapters do occur in New York City.

But why did I choose a contemporary setting, how did I pick it and what research did I do to get there? In this post, I’ll walk you through my decision tree and the ways you too can pick a contemporary location for your fiction novel.

Settings & Fantasy

“High fantasy is set in an alternative, fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the ‘real’ or ‘primary’ world.”

Brian Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature, (p. 198), Scarecrow Press, Plymouth. 2005.

The first decision you need to make in a fantasy novel (in sci-fi as well, although not as common) is deciding whether to set it in a second world/worlds or not.

If you choose a second world, you are writing a high fantasy. If you also expect to have a bucketload of pages, you’re also writing epic fantasy. You can write high fantasy that is not epic fantasy, although most authors don’t choose to do so. This is mainly because in order to do the second world justice, you need a lot of world-building backstory, exposition and narrative. And that takes word count.

This was an easy choice for me. There was no way I was creating a second world for my book. I chose a contemporary setting. I sort of hate world-building.

Okay, not sort of. I seriously dislike building the world. I want to write the story, not figure out how the currency works or where the water comes from. (That is why my husband created the world of my book. The first four posts explaining how he thought about the world of my book and how he built it can be found here, here, here, and here. Three more are to come, so stay tuned!)

Now you know why I chose to set my book in a our version of the world rather than a fantastical one: I’m lazy and hate world building. But how and why did I choose the setting I did?

Picking the Setting – Broader View

I knew, from the very first thought of this character, that she was in a car driving down a windy road, completely surrounded by trees. To me, those sorts of roads only really exist in New England in the US.

Yes, you can find windy roads with trees elsewhere, but the feeling I had when I pictured her in the car was in New England. Growing up, we spent a few years in Connecticut and the roads I pictured looked like the roads I remember from there. In fact, the road her house is on is from my time in Groton. Anyone from there will immediately recognize it.

I didn’t want the book set in Connecticut, though. It has too many people living in it. I wanted somewhere different, more isolated. Somewhere easier to have a little town off the beaten path that most humans wouldn’t find, but that could also be close enough to another little town to push them off to if they got persistent. And for some reason, that became New Hampshire.

Picking the Setting – Medium View

Now I have my location. The next thing I decided was what that little town looked like and what was around it.

Because I expected this book to be the start of a series and my MC would be returning to this town again and again, I wanted to create a broader setting than just a town. This meant that I needed woods, water, and not being on a main road.

Woods and water gave me more choices for the types of magical beings that may or may not live around my MC. Woods were a given as I already said, but having a lake, a river, maybe some creeks would open up my abilities to play with the beings in my community.

I think I need to back up a little bit and share some insights about the world my book is set in.

Yes, it is our world, as it is now. Humans exist, live in cities, elect the President, have political issues, etc. But the magic community also exists, except on a smaller scale. After all, all biological life we currently know in the non-book world exists in my book’s world, but falls under the larger phylum umbrella of The Multitude. Because we breed like rabbits, but have no magic.

The other phyla in my world have lower rates of repopulation and higher concentration of magic and abilities (see the aforementioned posts for more on that), which means they don’t like living around humans.

So they don’t.

They live in pockets of cities and towns everywhere, with wards and other magic protecting the town and compelling humans to go elsewhere. There are higher magical beings that don’t live in these communities, like the Fae. But this book doesn’t deal with them, so we’ll stick to what we’re working with in this book for now.

My location has been picked and narrowed down for the features it possesses, so now what?

Picking the Setting – Small View

Now you do research and figure out what your town looks like. What the houses look like, what main street looks like, what businesses are there, etc. And you do need to think about how people make the money they need to live.

Using New Hampshire as my guide, I started researching broader categories like: picturesque homes near lakes in New Hampshire, best places to live in NH, etc. And a few towns popped up. After exploring the online image available, I decided my town would look somewhat like Keene, NH, with a dash of Portsmouth thrown in.

Downtown Keene NH with gazebo

What this does is give me an idea of what the setting could look like, but keeps my ability to change it to fit what I need the town to look like. I decided the town would have red brick and stone buildings, a main street on a hill, a coffee shop (because everyone likes coffee, magic wielder, shapechanger or elf), a diner, a hardware store, and a bookshop.

Harriman’s Herbs is the main employer, shipping herbs to mundane companies (human) and magical herbs and potions to the magical communities all around the US. This town, thus, is predominantly magic wielders, but some Trolls (Phylum Stone) live nearby and there are or were shapechangers (Phylum The Moon) as well. There may or may not be others…but I’ll leave you to read the book to find out who or what they are.

I then spent a bit of time designing my MC’s home and what it would look like. I did a bit of research here, but I also had a strong image in my mind already. As long as the construction fits with the location, you can go nuts making the house what you want it to be.

And that’s it. My setting: Small town fictional Merricott in New Hampshire. I apologize in advance to any New Hampshire peeps out there…I kept a lot of it vague for a reason.

What’s Next?

Using my setting process as an example, when thinking of the setting of your novel, ask yourself a few questions:

? If a fantasy or sci fi book, is it set in a second world or a contemporary one? If it’s set in a secondary world or worlds, go to town on figuring out what it looks like and how it functions.

? If set in a contemporary world, what does it look like? Urban, rural, flat, hilly, trees, mountains, oceans, rivers, lots of buildings, not so many, etc.? The more you narrow this down, the easier it is to figure out where it can be.

? Once you have a region, do some research and see if any of the towns in that region look sort of like what you want.

? And then narrow down what else you want it to look like.

Most of all, have fun with it but make sure it provides everything you need for your current plot.

If you’re interested to see how I use the town in my book, my pre-sale campaign is currently live! Link is here.