Setting is hugely important to me, and it’s always the first place I start when thinking up a new story. I’m a firm believer that the setting can anchor the plot—and the more realistic the setting is, the more readers will be able to relate to the story—something which is hugely important in my genre (dystopian fantasy) given that a lot of the fantastical elements require the suspension of belief. By having a landscape that is realistic (at least in some ways), I think it makes it easier for readers to accept the otherworldly elements and not feel too lost.
In such a way, the setting grounds the plot, and it also becomes its own character, with its own function in the story. Given that my debut novel, Untamed is all about survival—and surviving under the harshest possible conditions—before I even began writing the first draft, I knew I wanted to set this story in a place where the setting would also heighten the survival aspect of the story. I wanted a landscape that was harsh and tough—a landscape that would make it even harder for the characters to survive. But I also wanted to write something that was a little unfamiliar to me. I wanted to surprise myself. I wanted to find the perfect landscape, and then turn it on its head a bit, applying my own creative license.
In the end, after many weeks of research, I settled on a landscape that was loosely based on the rural desert-areas either side of the Niger-Nigeria border. I spent hours and hours reading first-hand reports of travellers on their journeys, examining blogs and journal entries, looking at images of specific villages and playing with Google Maps. I then spent many more hours researching the fauna and flora of those places until I felt I had a good grasp of it. I wanted to get the details right, and have a believable basis for my fictional landscape.
Then I set about making this place my own. One of my favourite things about writing speculative fiction is that it allows for creative license with the setting. I decided I wasn’t going to use real-life place names (although I did go back and forth on this during editing!) in order to really make these landscapes my own, and give me total control over them—even if they are based on real-life places. But one of the biggest things I introduced to these landscapes—having spent so long researching them for accuracy—were the spirits who live in the land.
Untamed is set in an alternate-world future when spirits roam the world and the remaining ‘normal’ humans (the Untamed) are hunted down by the chemically Enhanced people who are determined to convert everyone. The inclusion of spirits was something that was very important to me, and I knew they were going to be linked to the land. But this brought up a whole new host of questions, the most important one being how the spirits would interact with the landscapes—and what effects this interaction would have on the different places the characters find themselves in. I quickly found myself inventing a whole new belief system and hierarchy of spirit types, allocating certain spirits to specific environments, working out how these two elements (spirits and places) would work together and add to the story.
As well as the landscape being realistic in its detail, I also wanted it to be unpredictable, to have the element of surprise—a bit of a contradiction, really. For a long time I’d been toying with the idea of having a landscape that changes and has a mind of its own, a landscape that presents its own problems and challenges. Given that my main character, Seven Sarr, grew up in the desert, she knows how to survive there—even if it is difficult. I quickly wanted to move her onto a whole host of other landscapes that would challenge and test her. Yet, I also wanted it to be realistic—and that was one of my biggest problems. I just didn’t think it would be believable if the reason the landscape changes so dramatically is because of the spirits’ powers. I was already asking my readings to suspend belief—quite a lot—with other elements and it just didn’t seem to work. Sure, the spirits in Untamed have some power in changing the landscape, but it would’ve been too much for the spirits to suddenly change the desert into a tropical rainforest. And that’s where the idea of travelling came in.
There’s a lot of travelling in Untamed, as the characters try to seek a safe place, away from the Enhanced Ones. I went back to the villages on the Niger/Nigeria border that I originally used and looked for other places in those two countries where the climate starts to get more humid, or the terrain more green. Anything that was different to a desert, basically. In the end, I had a travel route marked out that encompassed many different terrains and was loosely based on real-life places across Western Africa.
Then, I took some of those places, particularly towards the end of the journey in Untamed, and exaggerated them. I changed and adapted them, made them my own, based on my own experience with other environments, such as the Mallorcan Mountains and rugged moorland. A good proportion of my research also came from several visits to two large biomes in Cornwall, UK. Here, I was able to walk through a Mediterranean landscape, South African landscape, a tropical rainforest, and a Californian landscape. These biomes were also complete with birds and other wildlife too, so really gave me authentic experiences of these different places.
In such a way, my setting became an amalgamation of imagination and reality. After all, given that Untamed is about survival, it seemed only right that when the people-based threats are temporarily reduced in the plot, the landscape rears up, and takes on its own character. In such a way, each place presents new dangers in my novel, reinforcing how the characters need to be able to cope with adaptation—and quickly—in such a tumultuous environment that’s ever changing.
Madeline Dyer lives in the southwest of England, and has a strong love for anything dystopian, ghostly, or paranormal. She can frequently be found exploring wild places, and at least one notebook is known to follow her wherever she goes. Her debut novel, Untamed (Prizm Books, May 2015), examines a world in which anyone who has negative emotions is hunted down, and a culture where addiction is encouraged. Madeline’s second novel, Fragmented, is set to hit shelves on 7th September 2016.
About the “On Place” Series:
In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.
For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.