SF&F Troubleshooting with Karen Joy Fowler: Setting

Today’s post kicks off our guest author series: at the end of each month we’ll be hearing from a working speculative fiction author on what they consider some of the most challenging and important aspects of writing science fiction and fantasy.  This series is called “SF&F Troubleshooting,” and our first contributor is bestselling author and Clarion Foundation president Karen Joy Fowler, who has a few words to say about setting.


I’m pleased and honored to be among the first posters here and want to thank all of you who are visiting and reading this.  I was asked to talk about some of the things that are on my mind, particularly as they pertain to my writing.  I’m working on a novel and also a short story just now.  I’m thinking, as I generally do, about where I am inside these projects.  I mean that literally.

Many years ago, I asked myself what my attachment to science fiction was.  I like my technology to work; in theory, I’d like to know how it works.  In practice, life is too short and I am too old.  I’ll never be the reader who says I’ve done the math and your characters ran out of oxygen back on page 8. (Though I hope someone else will.  Your poor characters!)

But I will work to understand the latest research on the epic bird migrations, on why the coral is disappearing, on whether Mars has water.  Many years ago I began to think of science fiction (including fantasy, too, of course) as a genre of setting.  The only genre, in fact, where a story can take place absolutely anywhere.  I love this literature because of the places I get to go.

As a young writer, I initially thought of setting as the shortest side of the character/plot/setting triangle, something I’d think about after I’d worked out those other elements.  As a working writer, setting is my obsession and often the thing I know first about a story.

Some of my favorites — Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Venice Drowned,” Michael Swanwick’s “The Edge of the World,” Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon,” Kelly Link’s “Light” — are stories inspired primarily by their settings.  Candas Jane Dorsey, in her afterword to land/space, says very elegantly the things I also think, including this:  “In SF, setting is not flat in the conceptual sense.  It is intrusive, obtrusive, visible, changeable, critiquable, and powerfully influential.”  Read the whole essay if you can find it.  Deeply imagined settings are why the reader agrees to believe in the story.  They are the difference between reading a story and inhabiting it.

This is the point at which I worry I’ll be misunderstood.  I do not write nor generally wish to read long paragraphs of description.  Some writers can do that beautifully and engagingly — Lucius Shepard springs to mind.  For the rest of us, setting should be evoked quickly and economically with one or two well chosen details.

A few prods have continued to be helpful to me over the years, so I’ll share them.

1)  Ask yourself: what’s the thing you wouldn’t know unless you’d actually been there?  That’s the detail you want to include.

2)  From the wonderful Tim Powers:  Ask yourself where the light in the scene is coming from.  You may or may not include that in your piece, but answering the question will force you to imagine the setting more fully.

3)  You’ve been told many times to evoke all five senses, but you always forget.  Remember!  Weather happens even when the plot doesn’t require it; sometimes your character is cold.  The forest does not smell like the farm.  In a crowded bar, it is so noisy, you hardly hear anything.

4)  And remember that you have more senses than just the five.  A partial list:  you have a sense of humor, of justice, of timing, of taste.  You have a sense of wonder.  Use them all in everything you write.

And the best advice of all —  5)  From Jack Kerouac (slightly revised):  when you get stuck, don’t think about words.  Imagine it better and keep going.

Finally:  I’m not sure the extent to which this last bit is still about my writing, except that, like many writers, I live a great deal of my life inside my head.  I was (you were too) always reading as a kid.  I can bring the Shire into my head more vividly than I remember the house I lived in until I was eleven.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I live now in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Every day, I walk through a beautiful state park and along an ocean cliff.  Every day, the landscape I move through is magically different.  And yet, as I walk I’ve usually got my earbuds in.  I eat breakfast while I surf the internet.  When I’m not answering my email, I’m chewing over my current set of worries like an annoying song you can’t get out of your head.

So I’m trying to stop all that.  I’m trying to pay attention.  I had a milestone birthday recently and I’m thinking about my time here as finite now.  I’m thinking that, maybe, if we’d been paying better attention, we wouldn’t be losing the world we grew up in to oil spills and climate change and extinctions.  I’m thinking that if I have to say good-bye, I want to have really been here.

Of course, there are a whole lot of books I still need to read, too.  I don’t want to miss out on any of the incredible imaginary places where I might have gone.  It’s a quandary.


3 thoughts on “SF&F Troubleshooting with Karen Joy Fowler: Setting

  1. Thanks, Karen

    1) Ask yourself: what’s the thing you wouldn’t know unless you’d actually been there? That’s the detail you want to include.

    2) From the wonderful Tim Powers: Ask yourself where the light in the scene is coming from. You may or may not include that in your piece, but answering the question will force you to imagine the setting more fully.

    I’ve never thought about it like this.

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