If you don’t want your story (yes, even your fantasy story) to cause snickers amongst your readership, take the time to know your setting well.
When my family watched Captain Philips (with Tom Hanks), based on the real-life experience of a Vermont resident, we chuckled and nudged each other in the opening scenes. Vermont doesn’t have a four-lane highway! We’re lucky to have two drivable lanes in some portions of the state. Vermont’s I-89 exit to Burlington International Airport is 14E, not 30B. In fact, the highest exit number along the interstate is Exit 22, near Canada. Plus, there is no interstate between Underhill and Burlington; it’s all back roads. Clearly, the story had not been filmed on location. (In all fairness, I should mention that I enjoyed the rest of the movie, minus some language issues.)
The Problems With Assuming You Know the Setting
In all fiction, even fantasy or sci-fi, accuracy in the details of place is crucial.
When I planned a fantasy novel set on a tropical island, I postponed the writing of it until my family visited Hawaii. As I suspected, my visit radically my story’s perspective. My vision of plumeria-blossoms in my heroine’s hair popped like a bubble when I discovered that plumeria flowers are sticky and attractive to ants.
As for sitting on a rock gazing seaward, that would all depend on the type of rock. Volcanic rock—the most common rock along the Hawaiian shoreline—is riddled with tiny air bubbles, which, when exposed by the erosion of the sea, create sharp edges that are very uncomfortable to sit on.
The Benefits of Knowing the Setting
My visit also introduced possibilities I would otherwise not have considered. For example, a lava tube, heretofore unknown to me, became the perfect hiding-place for a character.
Of course, my story is set in a fantasy world, so many aspects of the story depart from the exact geography of Hawaii, but the strong sense of place gives the story real depth. My first impressions of my story had been grayscale; now they came to life in full color.
Plan Your Setting
Do not skimp on your setting. When envisioning a particular setting, find such a place that exists in the real world, and learn the feel of the land. Soak in the nuances of place that affect every day life. Take the time to paint your setting with the richness of reality that it deserves.
Most readers will sense the depth, but not know why they feel so inserted into the story. But a few—the kind to whom place is as personal as family—will recognize your setting and murmur, “Nowthere is an author who knows what he’s talking about.”
What fantasy setting, in a book you have read or a book you have written, most captures your imagination? Can you think of a real-life place that mirrors that setting?