The Importance of Climate and Setting in Fiction

Judging Paradise, a Novella
A Novella Set on the Fictional Island of Santa Clara

My work is all fiction, but the settings are generally real. For example, each Nick Temple File takes place in a variety of real locations. Berlin is often the focal point for those works, but I’ve used Mombasa, Paris, Prague, Garmisch, Washington, D.C., Monterey, Cairo, Rostock, Heraklion, and many other cities as additional or key settings. When I establish a scene’s setting I have to decide how much description is appropriate. An initial introduction to a setting that will be repeated throughout the work will require more detail than subsequent references. However, how much is enough? If the action is happening in the Bavarian Alps, how much detail beyond simply noting the geographic location is required? The answer to that question, in my view, is the same as the answer to the questions about the necessity of any other type of passage in the book. That is, “How does this description contribute to the overall story? Does a lack of detail leave a hole in the story? Is there some point at which the details are superfluous to the story?” Ultimately, the answers are editorial judgment calls, but the important thing is to realize the questions need asking, contemplating, and answering.

For my novella, Judging Paradise, I decided to create an entirely fictional setting, the Caribbean island of Santa Clara. As a result, the level of description would likely need to be greater than were the setting one with which readers would be broadly familiar. I spent some time living and working on St. Thomas in the USVI when I was in my early twenties. That experience became the basis for Judging Paradise, but I wanted to escape the confines of my physical experience for purposes of controlling and hopefully enhancing the story at the heart of the book. In addition to creating a fictional setting, I wanted to use the general climatic conditions of the Leeward Islands as a constant influence on the novella’s characters and action. What I didn’t realize until I was done writing was that my fictional island’s climate was an important character in the book. Its presence colored nearly every experience chronicled in the book and eventually blended with the conditions on the island created by its inhabitants in a way that added texture and meaning to the story. Without the climatic details, even with a host of physical descriptors, the book would have been missing an important element that helps explain and circumscribe the characters’ thoughts and actions. Subtropical heat, trade winds, languorous humidity, salt air, and luxurious night warmth all play a collective role in the story. So much so, that I concluded that the fictional island’s climate is a key character in the book.

That conclusion should not have come as a surprise given the importance of climate in our daily lives, particularly its effect on our work lives, our recreational choices, our home lives, and our overall world view. I don’t doubt that most other people have had a similar epiphany without having to write a book. For me, however, it took nearly ten years of writing and rewriting a relatively short work of fiction to realize that simple truth. The things that flow from the act of writing never cease to surprise me.