I show up at my desk with a fresh mug of tea, ready to get to work. "I'm starting a new novel," I announce to my Muse. "Should I set it in a real place, or make up an imaginary location?"
"Yes," she replies. She's sitting in the corner, playing with some toys.
"What kind of answer is that?" I'm slightly perturbed. "It wasn't a yes-or-no question."
"It depends," she explains unhelpfully, "on what layer of setting you're talking about."
"Layer? I'm writing a book, not baking a cake."
"Oh, cake! What a wonderful idea."
"Setting," I say firmly. "For a novel. Real or imaginary? And what do you mean by layer?"
"Books have macro settings and micro settings," she explains patiently, as I were a six-year-old. "In most cases, the macro settings are real, and the micro settings are usually imaginary, especially at the innermost levels."
Maybe I've regressed to six, because I'm ready to throw a tantrum. "Macro? Micro? I don't know what you're talking about."
My Muse comes over and hands me a brightly painted wooden doll.
"See this? It's a set of Russian nesting dolls. It looks like a single doll, doesn't it. Now, open it up."
I obey, revealing a smaller doll hidden within. I open that one to find another, littler still. And on I go, one doll after another, until I reach the smallest, tiniest one.
"There! You see?" My Muse claps her hands, pleased that I managed that simple task. "The setting of a story works the same way, small places layered within larger ones. The outermost level is the planet. Then comes a country or region, and within that, a city, a town, or some rural place. Burrowing deeper, we get to a particular neighborhood, a certain road, a specific building. At the heart of it all, there's a room, or maybe a street corner, or a campsite or a stretch of beach. And that's where a scene's action takes place."
"So a book can have many settings," I say, lining up the dolls on the desk.
"As many settings as there are scenes," she agrees. "Although usually there will be repeats."
"Guessing here, but I'd say the macro settings are the big, outer layers, and the micro settings are the innermost ones."
"Exactly. The macro setting provides the geographical and cultural context for the story. Usually these are real places."
"The planet is almost always Earth, for example." I'm stating the obvious.
"True. Unless I give you with a great idea for Star Wars fan fiction. Then you might set the story on Tatooine."
"I don't think that will apply to this book," I say.
She nods. "Earth it is, then. A real place. And you want to get the details of the macro settings right, or readers will get annoyed. There are some matters on which it's hard to get them to suspend their disbelief. On the other hand, the micro layers of a story are usually made up. You can get let your imagination go, so long as you make the details consistent and plausible for that particular story. In other words, you want the place to seem real to the reader. The haunted house in your last book, for instance--it's not real, but it had a certain veracity. Readers happily accepted it."
"It bears some resemblance to a house where I--but you're right. I moved that house to a new location and changed a lot of its features. And added ghosts."
"In other words, you made it up."
"So where is the border between those two classifications? A city for instance. Some authors write about real cities, others have imaginary ones. Which is it, macro or micro?"
"Well, along about there is where the boundaries get fuzzy. It's possible to have both in the same book. That detective story you have coming out in a few months--some scenes take place in San Francisco, which is a real place, as hard as that is to believe sometimes. And some scenes are set in a suburban town that exists only in your mind and on the page."
"Okay," I said. "With macro settings it's best to stick to what's real, with micro settings you can play around and have fun. And where you draw the line between them is up to you." I put the Russian dolls back together and hand them to my Muse.
"Exactly," she says with a satisfied smile. "Now let's go find some cake."