What do romance novels and real estate have in common? Location, location, location. We’re not talking how close home might be to a bookstore (hopefully close enough) or where anybody left their e-reader, or even a favorite reading spot. Nope, our topic today is all the places that make romance bloom, whether that’s because of the setting, or in spite of it. Where is this going? Pack a bag, because we’re about to find out.
Ask any romance reader their favorite setting, and get ready for a detailed description of the perfect time and place, as well as the atmosphere, tropes, and general feel of the setting. Regency England is popular for glittering parties, classical influence, and a fairy tale worthy backdrop for love among (usually) the upper crust. The American west, past or present, is home to hardworking people from all walks of life, unafraid to strike out on their own and make a living from land that often has a mind of its own. Lovers of futuristic romance dream of a future where anything is possible, with the author’s imagination the only limits.
Most of us have a favorite time and place for our love stories to inhabit, though we often read widely across the globe, as well as the space-time continuum. Some readers put themselves firmly in historical, contemporary, or speculative camps, and some can get even more specific than that. Scottish Highland story, hmm? Is that before or after the Act of Union? Does Culloden come into play at all? Are we talking paranormal elements here, or strictly real-world historical, and, if the latter, how real-world are we talking here? Looking the other way for some of the not-so-pretty realities of the setting, or tackling those head on and making them part of the story?
Readers familiar with their favorite settings can spot a mistake a mile off, and, in the age of the internet, can discuss this with other like-minded readers, and, possibly, set less-informed readers straight. Other readers may find that reading a setting with which they are that familiar takes away from the romance. How can the lovers tryst there, when the cesspit, hog trough, or security camera is twenty feet away? Plus, this time of year, they would die of heat exhaustion or freeze to death (please choose seasonally appropriate disaster) long before they got to the good stuff. For this type of reader, less familiar settings may be a better choice.
Which brings us to an important question: how familiar do we need to be with a setting, to immerse ourselves in the story? All of us have tried a new setting at least once (even our favorite settings were once new) and, sometimes, it takes a while to acquaint ourselves with not only the geography of a new setting, but the sociology, customs, and way of life. There may be a lot in common between contemporary society and that of ancient Rome, but there is a world of difference between hopping into a hot shower, and scraping sweat from one’s body (or having someone else do the scraping) with a strigil. For some readers, a new setting means a chance to learn and have new experiences, while others may want to stop and look things up so that they can have a better picture in their head, if they’ve never been here before.
What is it about favorite settings that makes them favorites? Is it only familiarity, or is there something else? Take the qualities typical of a Regency romance, mentioned above. Would those qualities still be interesting in a different time period, or location, say the Gilded Age of late nineteenth/early twentieth century New York? Could a western move to a farm on the East Coast, or circle round the globe to the Australian Outback and still hold most of the qualities that appeal to dedicated western readers?
It’s a complicated subject, and one that is endlessly fascinating. There are times when trying a new setting, be it the dedicated Regency fan jumping into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or a lover of small town romance taking a trip to the big city (or the other way around, for either) is fun and exciting, full of surprises and adventure on every page. Who knows, it might become a new favorite, and all because of taking a chance on something new.
Other times, there is absolutely nothing like coming home, to the setting that pleases the reader every time. Consider it the reader’s version of coming home for the holidays (or just because, as we don’t always need a reason to pick our next read.) The door is always open, our favorite chair is free, and the scent of Mom or Dad’s special dish wafts through the air, as friends and family welcome us, and urge us to stay as long as we’d like.
It may not always be easy to articulate why we love the settings we love, be they past, present or future, or wherever one sticks a pin in the map, but one thing is for sure; once we find a place we like, there are no end of books that allow us to visit it whenever we wish.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Does setting matter when choosing what book to read? Is there a setting you’ve never tried, but always thought sounded interesting? How about a setting that makes your ears perk every time, and beckons you home? Pull up a chair in our comment section and tell us all about it. If there are settings that are a no-go for you, we want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.