Setting and worldbuilding can often be something left to speculative fiction writers. But often the best books, even those that aren’t spec fic, have powerful settings. Sometimes they even act as characters, personifying themes or interacting with the story in ways that surprise the reader and deepen the narrative.
Reading is the most important thing writers can do; it is truly the closest thing to an apprenticeship we have. By deconstructing books that work, we can figure out at least some of the magic that the brilliant authors have used when concocting their stories. This is the first in a series of posts called ‘The Writer’s Apprenticeship’, which will include recommendations for books that excel at different aspects of the craft. To view all the posts in this series, click here.
1. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Undoubtedly a modern classic, and set in 1950s Connecticut suburbia, this is the story of an unlikeable couple and their self-destruction. Suburbia in this book is dark and unsettling, and the way it weaves into every corner of the story is remarkably well done. This is an excellent example of a novel where the setting is a minor character; it is always present, but never overpowers the story.
2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Magical from the outset, this setting is incredibly written. This is the closest thing I’ve read to an incidental fairytale, and the prose is beautiful. The circus is enchanting, and I’ve always described reading this book as like drinking a warm cup of hot chocolate. Just know going in that this one isn’t plot-heavy; read it for the atmosphere and the experience, rather than the story.
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This is a literary murder mystery, but rather than a whoddunnit, it’s a whydunnit. You know the pivotal point of the novel from the outset, and the reading experience involves examining each of the characters (none of which are particularly likeable, in the best way) to learn their inner motives. This is a campus novel, and this part of the setting is perfect, but it also brings much from Ancient Greece. Here, the campus is not quite a character, but it is vivid and unwavering.
4. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
For a fun, YA beach read, this is as good as it gets. The writing itself isn’t complex, but the setting is enchanting, with the main character exploring Paris alongside the reader. This is a great example of a short and contemporary YA with a vivid setting—and readers often comment on how much they love this book’s Paris.
5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book is experimental in a number of ways; the narration is written in an unsettling third-person plural perspective. A group of unlikeable men tell the story of the beautiful and idyllic Lisbon sisters they knew in their teen years, and what happened to them. The story is set in the seventies, and the influence is so vivid.
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell for its terribly bittersweet rendition of the 80s.
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor for its magical Prague, and its even more magical other world.
- In the Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami, for uncovering a chilling side of Japan that I hope I’ll never see.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, for both of its Londons.
- The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, for its enchanting atmosphere which is every bit as important as the setting itself.
- Candy by Luke Davies for exploring a dark and gritty underground that felt undeniably real to the reader, regardless of whether it was.