In writing mysteries, the setting usually enhances the characters and the plot. Agatha Christie’s English village represents an entire genre of walkabout crime whereby manor houses, inns, and churchyards are often sited and cited on hand-drawn maps. It would be hard to imagine Inspector Morse or Inspector Lewis without Oxford University as the backdrop. And the bleak rural Scandanavian settings provide Wallander with mood, characterization, and rationale. The ferocious anger and hostility and crumbling building facades within ghetto environments serves as the undercurrent to numerous police/detective series. And Clive Cussler’s NUMA series relies almost totally on understanding of the surface and sub-surface ocean dynamics and modern ship propulsion technology.
In literature, perhaps no one expresses the importance of setting more than William Faulkner, whose Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, became not only the for his most powerful novels and characters, but also became a place even more concrete and enduring in the mind’s eye than the reality of Oxford, Mississippi, itself. It was the place of giant live oaks and dark swampy forests and expansive yards in front of mammoth columns holding up porches than went on forever. And the entire setting seemed to be decaying measurably within the pages of the novel. Not so long afterwards, Tennessee Williams chose a similar setting for his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
For romance writers, it seems to me that setting is equally if not more important in developing characters that interact or bounce off one another. My beloved Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer’s many Regency romances depend largely on their expansive descriptions of homes, parks, shops, and costumes of London, Bath, and several villages. Behavior of the characters draws out of these settings naturally and easily.
Recently my sister-in-law, Jane Myers Perrine, established the Texas village of Butternut Creek as the setting for her romantic trilogy – The Welcome Committee…, the Matchmakers….and the Wedding Planners of Butternut Creek. In each case, the houses, the church, the schoolyard, and the public buildings provide a cozy place for her characters to meander slowly into place as they drop their troubling backgrounds and engage with each other in the present safe environment.
While it is true that cruise ships or desert islands may provide a contained setting for a romance plots, one could wonder about how much character development may occur. It is rather like a one-joke movie where the comedy seems more and more contrived. On the other hand, my all time favorite romances include the wild and expansive settings of Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile that include double and triple entendres. And find me a woman of any age that didn’t love Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in the cityscapes of New York and Seattle – Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. That valentine heart on the Empire State Building was the ultimate manipulative event in moviedom, but oh was it ever effective. It reminded me of the ice skating scene at the end of Serendipity, where you knew the impossible was going to happen right then.
And speaking of John Cusack and Julia Roberts, which, of course we weren’t, the very constrained setting of the resort in the desert, actually enhanced both the plot and characters in America’s Sweethearts. It was a throw-back to the old Agatha Christie village, a walkabout romance.